Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's My Motivation?

I've probably mentioned character motivations in a prior post numerous times, but in skimming my past musings on writing I've yet to come across a single post talking primarily about determining what motivates your character. Now, Nelsa Roberto is quite possibly the queen of determining motivation, but I'm willing to offer my humble thoughts on the topic if you fine folks are willing to read it.

One of the documents I crafted awhile back during my pre-planning for the Scene Development document was a sheet detailing the goals of each of my primary or secondary characters. This ended up being roughly six pages of profile work, but it helped me figure out what my heroine wants, why my villain wants to stop her, and what the goals of their individual allies are -- sometimes the goals of their allies were in line with those of the heroine or villain, and sometimes the goals were wildly different.

Why is figuring this out ahead of time a good thing? For two reasons really: first off, you get a deeper sense of who the character is. Second, you understand why the story happens the way it does. In CALLARION AT NIGHT, Moriah's motivation is the promise she makes to her father that she will find her mother's diary. By contrast, the villain (Lucian Rombard) is motivated by his desire to destroy the diary because he's convinced it contains information that will disrupt his plans to eliminate the half-breeds from the kingdom.

Rombard's original motivation for wanting the diary was because he thought it contained proof of something he'd already done. They I realized: "Wait a minute. He could just say the diary was a lie and kill Moriah. Why would he care?" So his motivation changed to something that makes more sense in the context of propelling the story forward.

My secondary characters important enough to appear multiple times also get the same treatment. In some cases, this involves half a page of text describing who they are and why they want what they want. This adds flavor to the world of the story, and allows me to occasionally place the goals in opposition to each other. In the case of Dmitry Radimov, a former commander in Naval Intelligence, this means his goal of revenge on the man who murdered his wife may get in Moriah's way of finding the diary. Why? Because the man who killed Dmitry's wife may be in possession of a clue.

Not all motivations are created equal, however. I've read a lot of fantasy stories where the motivation of the main character is nothing more than "it's the right thing to do." While this can work, on occasion, I've found that many times such a general motivation tends to not hold up under examination. It's fine in such seminal novels as Lord of the Rings though, because Frodo isn't the cliche fantasy hero. He's a hobbit with no battle skills whatsoever, no experiences outside the Shire, and is completely ignorant of most of the dangers he'll face on the way to his goal. And yet, knowing all this, he decides to hike across the world to destroy a ring that could end his way of life. Why? Because it's the right thing to do.

A super-heroine like Moriah (Gary Corby called her that one day, which made me realize that she kind of is a super-heroine), however, can't do something because "it's the right thing to do." The motivation doesn't hold the same weight because she's too close to a stereotypical fantasy hero. That's why it has to be something more mundane and personal motivating her rather than the greater good of the kingdom. Besides that, her personality wouldn't mesh very well with an altruistic motivation when the story opens. She's got too much hurt and anger threading through her actions.

What about your characters? What motivates them?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! When I was pantsing my novel (I'm not anymore... I got stuck... now I'm outlining and backstorying), I found in one scene that I didn't know what was going to happen until I asked what each of the characters wanted. Knowing that kind of thing going into a scene really helps underpin the action, in that each character is angling for something, and things had better change for at least one of them by scene's end.

So... well said, sir!

Matthew Delman said...

Simon --

That's exactly why I love figuring out motivations so much. It's added a much, much deeper flavor to the tension of the novel. Now that I've figured out what my characters want in each scene they're in, I can underpin the tension with that and craft a more engrossing story.

Oh, and thank you!

Gary Corby said...

I'm slightly amazed you kept that twitter conversation.

I claim, in passing, there are significant differences in character treatment between a garden variety hero and a superhero.

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

I actually did a Google search to find it again; I remembered it was part of the Twitter convo about grappling hooks and such, and searched your name plus Moriah and superheroine.

Also, you're definitely right. I think the character treatment of a garden variety hero and a superhero have to be different because the superhero needs to be brought down so they can relate to the reader, while the garden variety hero needs to be built up to be believable as a hero.

Adam Heine said...

Good post. I got through 5 chapters of The Cunning before realizing that I had no idea what Major Character #2 wanted (fortunately she hadn't really appeared yet). The story's much more interesting now I know Anna doesn't actually want to help Suriya (the protagonist); she just wants to get her job over with.

Cynthia Reese said...

Be still, my heart! A plotter that's as OCD as I am! And this is such a good idea, figuring out what motivates characters. It's like Archimedes would have said if he'd been a novelist: give me the proper motivation, and my characters will do anything.

Matthew Delman said...

Adam -- That is a powerful realization isn't it? When you find out that one of your characters doesn't want what you thought they originally wanted always makes things interesting.

Cynthia -- Didn't we already establish that you and I share OCD tendencies in regards to plotting? I love the adapted Archimedes quote! Totally going to appropriate that.


Admittedly, I'm not a plotter, so it's always interesting to get this kind of glimpse into the minds of people who...uh, actually think through their stories. Great insights! Thanks for sharing.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Wait, you can Google Twitter? Isn't that like crossing the beams, or something?

I usually have an intuitive feel for my character's motivation long before I can articulate it in something as plotterish as a motivation sheet. In fact, it usually comes out first as a rambling diary entry in first person ("This is me, and this is why I think what I do ...").

But I very much like the idea of fleshing out those secondary character motivations to add depth to their participation in the story.

Thanks for the great post!

p.s. I'm going to have to visit the Steampunk Empire

Matthew Delman said...

Tawna -- You're welcome. It's similarly interesting to me to see your methods.

Susan -- You can Google anything if you know the right keywords. I attempted to write diary entries for my characters, but then I realized that I was trying too hard to hit their voice. If I wrote it like a biographer though, I could get their motivations and such down real easy.

Oh, and yes you are. You also have to skim through Mike Perschon's posts at Steampunk Scholar -- you think I'm an expert on the genre, you should see his steampunk posts. He puts me to shame.

L. T. Host said...

It never ceases to amaze me the sheer amount of work you put into building your world.

Hurry up and finish writing this thing so I can read it already!!!

Just kidding. But seriously, yeah. You are great with building the anticipation.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. -- I talk about it like it's work, but I love figuring out how my fantasy worlds operate. It satisfies my tiny portion of a God complex that all writers have (and don't any of you try to deny that you love controlling the fates of fictional people).

Also ... *evil grin*

Unknown said...

My characters always have such mixed motivations it can be hard to pinpoint them --though I do sit down at do that eventually. Usually somewhere in the middle of a draft when I can't figure out why a character seems . . . out of character. Also their motivations tend to change as the story progresses or turn out to be different than they thought they were when they started. For example Cathair Tuathal is motivated (he thinks) out of loyalty for his country and ancestry but in reality it is grief for the loss of his family.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

A great post as always, Matt. Sorry I haven't been commenting as much lately. I totally stalked your steampunk series, though. You know how I loved the Mary Shelley/Frankenstein posts. This post is one I'm going to bookmark. :-)

Matthew Delman said...

Taryn -- Moriah's like that too, but in reverse. Initially her promise to her father is what's motivating her, but after seeing evidence of the craphole her homeland's become it's her family's mantra of "The strong protect the weak."

Shannon -- Hey! Glad to see around these parts. If you love the Roots series so much you'll be ecstatic to hear I'm turning the sucker into a research article for publication. Also: If you happen to be in the Carolinas in November, you can hear me present at Upstate Steampunk in Greenville, S.C.

Joshua McCune said...

Excellent post -- I know I've lost my way before when plot's become the unstoppable driving force. Thanks for the reminder.

And, yeah, I don't see M being the shining moral beacon, which makes her more realistic and more interesting, IMO.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane -- Glad to see you reasonably back up and around, sirrah. Also, you just managed to encapsulate M quite succinctly. Shining moral beacon she is not -- nor does she particularly want to be.

dolorah said...

I think I do my plotting along the way; like the whole first draft is more plot, backstory, and character building. I stop several times along the way to add to a character sketch, or put obstacles in the way.

But motivation - while it might change slightly as the novel develops- is what starts a story for me. And a character. Each new character I add has to have a motivation to show up more than as dressing for a MC or scene.

Excellent post Matt. I hope you do put that series together and get it published. I didn't comment much, but I did read it; and plan on referring back to it often when I really delve into that fantasy.

Research time is my biggest barrier right now.


out of the wordwork said...

Hi Matt: Great post - of course any post on motivation will a terrific thumbs up from me! I'm humbled by Cynthia's assertion that I'm the Queen of Motivation. Maybe not the Queen - more like her humble handmaid. But any time I can ask "Why is this character doing this" and I have an answer for it is a time I know my novel is progressing well. Especially for those important secondary characters! I think that's why my WIP stalled - I haven't worked out my MC's motivation to my satisfaction yet.
This post has helped. I dub thee "King of Motivation".