Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Character Motivations

I’ve recently finished the second draft of the second book in my 12th Dimension series (RISK). The first draft was too horrible to be seen by any eyes save my own and one other person. That one other person (thanks Kate!) was able to read it and point out holes the size of Belgium and therefore put poor RISK onto the second draft track. So when the second draft was complete it went out to my other Alpha readers for their evaluation.

Now reading this manuscript was no small task, as I understand. I’m sure it was a sight easier than what poor Kate had to read but there were still problems with the manuscript that no public reader should ever have to witness. My biggest problem: character motivations.

I am a discovery writer so by nature I write wonderfully from point A to point B. I create darn good action sequences (usually involving a lot of electricity and firearms) and my dialogue (IMHO) rocks. However, since I am the aforementioned discovery writer, I don’t always know what my characters want at the moment I’m writing that slam-bang action sequence. I usually don’t even know what my characters want until I’ve written “the end” and then had a group of Alpha readers read the manuscript and we stay up until two in the morning hashing over what the devil my characters want.

This doesn’t mean they are completely directionless. I’m pretty good at the small motivations, i.e. Rose doesn’t want to be shot by that guy so she hides behind that rock and volts him the second she gets a chance. I’m not even too bad with motivations that span several chapters, i.e. Thurmond sees that Rose is in trouble and will go to the ends of the earth (or Arches National Park) to find her and help her out. The place I really struggle is the manuscript-spanning motivations, i.e. Rose is sad at the beginning of the manuscript and has to do something deliberate over the course to 100 thousand + words to make her not sad anymore.

The trouble with not knowing character motivations is that you have characters who are for the most part reactive. Someone does this and so they need to do that. They are not able to drive the story. They don’t engender the same trust as you would give a character who, I don’t know, has a plan and you get to see them implement it. Don’t you just love a character you can trust will always get out of the situation? For example, Dr. Who is fantastic at this. You know his motivation (save Earth, or the girl or both) and so you can trust that no matter how bad things get he has a plan to get everyone out of it.

That doesn’t mean that characters can’t have moments of directionlessness (I know that’s not a word, the red underline is screaming at me), but they should be few and far between. They should be that low point right before the character turns things around and gets back on their motivation horse.

As my editor told me recently, “Just remember that the character must want something ‘even if it's a glass of water.’ (Kurt Vonneghut, Jr.)”

So tell me, discovery writers and outline writers alike, do you ever have problems with your character’s motivations?


  1. some times we are all lost, so are our characters. It can used as well.


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