Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Is My Motivation?

I have been an avid reader (and movie watcher) my whole life and the number one thing that will shoot me right out of an otherwise otherworldly, out of body story experience is when characters do or say something that in my heart of hearts I know they wouldn't. I HATE THIS. I especially hate this when it, shortly thereafter, becomes clear that the creator of this universe (that has just failed to suspend my disbelief) uses this unbelievable doing or saying of something simply to set up a plot point later in the story.

This makes me cranky.

Given my day job, one thing I think I've gotten pretty astute at when working with a kid is (trying) to wade through all their overt behaviors (no eye contact, dirt looks, snotty tone, that chair they just threw across the room) and look for the underlying motivation. This is an important skill, for me, to develop because if all I'm concentrating on is the fact that this kid is refusing to do any school work, is defiant and confrontational with her teachers and will only draw pictures of burning buildings, I might miss the fact that her dad was just sent to prison--for life. (disclaimer: I don't talk about real kids, or their problems, here--or anywhere for that matter.)

Now this next statement is really only valid when considering what pen in the psychological theory circus your like to roll around in (assuming you don't just think it's full of clowns) but I happen to spend a lot of time with the cognitive behaviorists.

And as such, I happen to think all behavior has meaning.

What does this have to do with my writing and more importantly, yours?

Because our characters are people (and even if your character is a dog, alien or rabid space monkey, he needs to experience human like emotions, wants, and dreams in order to connect to your human audience) and these people need to have real wants and then make believable choices that (they think) will help them achieve that want. I don't think they have to be the right choices, the best choices, or even the smartest choices (and it's probably much more interesting if they aren't) but I believe they have to be choices that make sense to your character's personality.

Now by no means am I claiming that my writing executes this perfectly or even all the time. But it is something, as a reader, I am always trying to watch for in my own writing.


  1. Character motivation is huge! It definitely makes or breaks a story. And it's so easy to know but much harder to apply! I'm always working on the stuff I write about on my blog!

  2. I am on that bandwagon with you. It happened just the other day on a book I was reading. They had done something completely out of character, I almost wanted to yell at the author and tell them that I knew their character wouldn't do that. Once overcoming my anger I continued to read just knowing that I didn't agree with that part!!!

    I love your blog! It's so fun here! I have no choice but to follow!!! I'm so glad I found you over at Renae's today!

  3. Good Morning Laura! Yes it's true, it's sooo much easier to see when it's missing in other people's work.

  4. Hi Jen--I'm thrilled you came by. I hear you but my book throwing days are over--no matter how mad I get, I never, NEVER, throw my Kindle :)

    I do, however, misplace it all the time.

  5. Jess--Now see, I'm a self-centered brat. If I'm really into a book, I always think I know the character better.

  6. I can't agree more! I just read this somewhere else recently and it bugs me to death when a character does something like that. I see this a lot in scary movies too - drives me nuts!

  7. These things don't bother me. I still read books like I did when I was a little kid.

  8. Whisk...that's always how I can tell if (for me) a book is really great. I get completely lost in it like when I was 9.

  9. Great post, Becky. I have grappled with my characters' motivation many times. I'd say my strength as a writer is my plotting and pacing, and my ability to capture and paint a visual in the readers' mind. My flaw would be fully defining my characters. And it's a big flaw that I always have to make sure I'm addressing, and sometimes holds my writing back. It's like my concept and my "world" is so big in my story, and that's great, but the immensity of my story drowns my characters out and makes them more like set pieces. It's a double-edged sword. Thanks for the post.

  10. Hi Michael! It's always so much easier when we can point out what we struggle with--at least we know what to watch for.

    I'm looking forward to reading your book when it comes out, it sounds really exciting.

  11. Oh YES. This is a peeve of mine too. And one of the first things I nail when reading for my CPs.

    More than even motivation...if a character does/acts/says something out of character's personality and it's clear the writer did it for a plot point, it goes beyond pulling me out of the story. It drags me all the way to feeling cheated and angry about the authors laziness, especially when it's a published book. Because I also feel cheated by the agent and publisher/editor for not calling the writer on it and having standards.

    Oh, sorry. You just caught me on a major peeve of mine. I didn't mean to go on a rant on your blog. *blushes*

    Have a lovely weekend, Becky.

  12. Lola--twas a lovely rant and I completely agree.