Have you ever watched a really awful horror movie and wanted to scream at the protagonist–the one who chooses to go down alone into a dark cellar full of moaning and whimpering instead of calling 911–“Why on earth do you want to do that?”
Have you ever had a critique partner or editor write Why? in the margin of your manuscript? Or worse, scribble Unrealistic or Doesn’t make sense as their overall reaction to your chapter?
As Dean Koontz says in his book about writing Best-Selling Fiction,
Whether he realizes it or not, when an editor rejects a book because he finds it implausible, he is talking about character motivation, not about plot.
Charlie Sheppard, Editorial Director of Children’s Fiction at Random House, says he spends a lot of time working with new authors on why their characters behave or act in certain ways.
It mustn’t be simply because the author needs them to do so in order to solve a plot problem. Motivation has to be clear, honest and woven through the story. Plot needs to come from characterisation [British spelling] rather than the other way round.
When a character makes one certain choice, as opposed to any other, the reader must be able to see it as the only possible–inevitable–choice because of the character’s motivation as shown in previous scenes in the story.
Example: In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana is repeatedly shown as a person who does not suffer fools, who is brave when he has to be but prefers to just “get the job done” and get out. He takes on tough assignments reluctantly because he obviously likes order and routine (his day job is teaching). When challenged by a flashy, egotistical villain with a whip, Indiana thinks twice about playing that game and decides, instead, to pull out his gun and shoot. The audience laughs, understanding this is completely “in character” for him. His motivation for choosing the more practical over the theatrical doesn’t have to be explained.
That reaction from the audience is what an author wants at every step of the way. The reader must be able to look back at the motivation that has been set up for a character’s choices/actions and say, “Of course, she would do that because…
At its simplest level, motivation is about what a character wants or needs. Note: what a character believes he needs may not be the same as what he actually needs. And what she says she wants may change in the face of circumstances… because motivation is also about what the external story “needs.”
Another example: In Once a Hero by Elizabeth Moon, the heroine is a young Fleet officer who has only a minimum of training and ambition. But she does what she has to when push comes to shove–and finds herself the senior surviving officer after a hellish battle in space and mutiny. Now, due a series of flukes, she’s both the youngest and lowest ranking member of Fleet ever to win a major battle. A hero. This is not what she wanted, but the Fleet is at war… and war needs heroes. Moon begins the story after that first courageous act of “heroism, ” so from the very beginning, we see and understand the heroine’s feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty. When she hesitates and struggles to be what the external world needs her to be, we get it. When she leads her soldiers anyway, we know what it costs her. And with every choice she makes, we see her honor and integrity tested and her growth into a real hero, because once a hero…
But Avoid Predictability
Despite the need to make a character’s motivation crystal clear, you don’t want to have the character’s actions be completely predictable.
All this means is that the motivations should be complex and subtle. As Ronald B. Tobias says in 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them:
At times the character’s behavior should surprise us (“Why did she do that?”), but then, upon examining the action, we should understand why it happened. Just because there’s a logical connection between cause and effect doesn’t mean it has to be obvious.
Charlie Sheppard is a past winner of The Branford Boase Award and a nominee again in 2015, for his work with author Sara Crowe on Bone Jack. The Branford Boase Award was set up to reward the most promising new writers and their editors, as well as to reward excellence in writing and in publishing. The Award is made annually to the most promising book for seven year-olds and upwards by a first time novelist. This year (2015) the award went to Rosie Rowell and her editor Emily Thomas for Leopold Blue, published by Hot Key Books.
Dean Koontz writes psychologically complex novels that have been published in 38 languages. He has sold over 450 million copies to date and fourteen of his titles have ranked number one of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.
Donna Maloy’s first novel for teens, Celia and the Wolf, will be featured at the Texas Word Wrangler Festival and Gala in Giddings, Texas, September 9-10.