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by Hank Quense

Return to Characters, Viewpoint, and Names · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

How many times has this happened to you? You're in the middle of a story and suddenly you stop to ask yourself: "why is the character doing this?" The lack of motivation by the character has jerked you out of the story and has you scratching your head.

Try watching a TV show with the sound turned off. You can see the actors moving around and performing but you can't understand what motivates them. Why did that actor jump into a pool with his clothes on? Why did the woman slap the guy's face? You don't know and that lack of understanding limits your ability to enjoy the show. So too with novels or short stories; without understanding the motivation of the characters, the reader will never enjoy the story.

A character's motivation is a stealth trait. Readers don't examine stories looking for the motivational aspects. However, they instinctively know when they aren't there. They'll know the story is flawed and will stop reading.

Motivation isn't a visible trait like a character's physical features, but it is essential to supporting the reader's suspension of belief. Motivation provides the rationale on why a character -- especially the protagonist -- does the things he does in the story. This is never more important then when the protagonist deliberately puts himself in harm's way. If the reader doesn't understand the motivation driving the character to face the danger, the reader won't believe in the story and they will conclude that the entire episode is contrived.

Motivation can be a straightforward desire to achieve a goal or it can be a stew of complex and often competing beliefs and moralities. The longer the story, the more time must be spent developing motives and the more complicated they can be.

This article discusses two types of motivational issues. One is related to bits of action in a scene and the other is the character's driving force that propels the story forward.

Minor Motivational Issues

These are the character's reaction to the events within the scene. As an example of a minor motivational problem consider this scene: the protagonist, Jack, is walking along the street.

"Jack!" Character B calls out. "How you doing, Dude?" This character is new and hasn't been introduced to the reader.

Jack frowns and doesn't reply right away. Finally he says, "I'm okay." Jack turns and stomps off without looking back. The motivational issue here is that the reader doesn't understand why Jack acted the way he did. No rationale is given for the reaction; consequently, the reader is perplexed, wondering why Jack doesn't like B. This type of situation occurs quite frequently in stories written by inexperienced writers. As son as Jack frowns, the author has to fill the reader in on the situation. These bits of the scene involve two elements: action and reaction. The action doesn't always need a motive to be believable and sometimes the reaction doesn't either. If a character sees a runaway car heading for him and the character reacts by diving out of the way, his motivation will be assumed by the reader; he's trying to save his lie. However, if the character stands his ground, pulls out a gun and blasts away at the car, the reader will want to know why he's risking his life and why he's trying to kill the driver. It is the author's responsibility to ensure motivation is provided where necessary.

Major Motivational Issues

The motivation that makes the story tick is the rationale on why the protagonist attempts to solve the plot problem. When faced with a difficult and possibly life-threatening problem, the reader demands the protagonist show a strong motive for risking his life. If the protagonist puts himself in danger because he has nothing better to do, the story won't hold a reader's interest. For that matter, it won't hold an editor's interest either.

Suppose someone shoots the protagonist who jumps behind a forklift, the reader will understand why he did that, but the reader also has to understand the more basic motivations. These include: Why was the character in the warehouse with the shooter? Did he go there deliberately or accidentally? Is he trying to provoke the shooter? These issues go to the reasons or situations that drive the character not just in the scene, but throughout the entire story, whether it is a short story or a novel.

The reasons that the protagonist undertakes to solve the plot problem goes to his inner character. Something deep inside drives the character to strive to rescue the kidnapped woman, slay the dragon, challenge the alien invaders or track down the mass murderer.

There are several aspects of the inner characterization that must be addressed if the motivation is to convincing.

Consistency with Character's Persona

Motivation is more complex than telling the reader why a character acted in a particular fashion: the reason must fit the character's persona. In other words, a character's motivation has to be consistent with the character's personal belief system and internal disposition. Suppose a timid, shy character is in love with a woman and wants to marry her. The author can't have the man charge into a crowded restaurant and sweep the girl off her feet with a display of wit and charm. No matter how much he loves the girl and wants to marry her, his nature will prevent him from using such public methods. He will have to use subtlety in a quite, un-crowded place in order to keep the reader turning pages. In this way, his motivation and his persona are consistent.

Another aspect of consistency is the value of the reward versus the cost to achieve the reward. Expending vast resources to achieve a modest goal is difficult for the reader to believe in unless the author makes a convincing case on how important the goal is to the character.

While a character can (and should) change over the course of a story, the change must be accompanied by suitable motivation. This change must result from the internal conflict between two opposing aspects of the character, such as fear and courage. If a character displays indecisive, weak-kneed behaviour throughout the story, he can't, at the end, become decisive and strong-willed unless the reader is shown a healthy does of inner anguish as the character's competing aspects slug it out.

Philosophical Outlook

A character's personal philosophy affects her reactions to events in the story. The reaction must be consistent with this philosophy or it won't be believable. Suppose the main character has been shown to be a world-class pessimist throughout the story. As this pessimist protagonist mulls over a serious problem, her sidekick approaches and says, "I've got a great idea!" After he elaborates the idea the protagonist jumps up and yells, "That's it! Let's do it!"

She has responded in a way that is inconsistent with her pessimistic persona. She responded the way an optimist would. As a pessimist she should sneer, "What a dumb idea. That'll never work." When a pessimist responds as an optimist, the reader will most likely groan and shut the book.

Inner and Outer Motives

A complex character, the kind readers love, should have both outer and inner motives. The outer motive is fairly easy to develop; it is usually based on solving the plot problem. Once this problem is resolved, the outer motive has been met. The inner motive is more complicated. It can be almost anything and doesn't have to be related to the plot problem. The best combinations of motives are a pair of mutually exclusive ones; the protagonist can't achieve one without giving up the other. This constraint sets up natural internal conflict in the character and can lead to unexpected plot twists that will keep the reader involved. In effect, the author has constructed and engine of motivation and anti-motivation.

As an example of conflicting inner and outer motives, consider this situation; the protagonist has to rescue a man trapped on a mountain. He does this because it is his job. That's the protagonist's outer motive. But once saved, the rescued man will marry the woman the protagonist loves. That is the protagonist's inner motive; to marry the woman of his dreams who he'll lose if he succeeds with his outer motive. It is easy to see the great internal conflict that will harass this protagonist. Should he let the guy die and marry the woman? Should he rescue the guy and lose the woman?

This combination of competing inner and outer motives can draw readers into the story and hold them. Will the character murder for love or selflessly lose the woman? Whatever he does it must be consistent with his persona. If he is narcissistic, he may choose murder. If he is law-abiding, he may elect to save the guy. Whatever he chooses to do, his motivation must be made clear to the reader.

Antagonist's Motivation

Successful stories need conflict, tension and emotions to hold a reader's interest. If a properly motivated protagonist strives to solve the plot problem and doesn't encounter an equally motivated antagonist, the story will lack the conflict that produces the tension that leads to emotional outbursts. Thus the author must develop strong motives for the bad guy to keep the struggle equal. The stronger the bad guy's motives, the stronger the story will be. It won't do to have a strongly motivated protagonist fighting against a bored antagonist.

Motivation is the core of the story and must be delineated for the reader. It is the engine that drives the characters. To be convincing the author must be so familiar with the characters to have a genuine comprehension of how they will react to stimuli. Without this understanding the author will be unable to develop full-rounded and believable characters.

Find Out More...

Raising the Stakes - Victoria Grossack

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part One) - Victoria Grossack

What Do Your Characters Want? (Part Two): How to Use Characters' Goals to Move the Plot - Victoria Grossack

What Does Your Protagonist Want? - Paula Fleming

Copyright © 2008 Hank Quense
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Hank -- assisted by his faithful mutt, Manny -- writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories (along with an occasional fiction writing article) from Bergenfield, NJ. All of these stories are humorous or satiric because he refuses to write serious genre stories. In the spirit of disclosure, Hank reports that all of the story ideas (the good ones anyway) come from Manny. Hank merely translates the dog's ideas into a manuscript. The pair of them have sold stories to Andromeda Spaceways, Cyberpulp, Fantastical Visions, Neo-opsis, Afterburner SF, Faeries (France), Electric Spec, Scyweb Bem, Glassfire, and Darker Matter Flash Fiction Online as well as several anthologies. Visit their website at http://hank-quense.com/wp/


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