WHY MOTIVATION MATTERS

WHY MOTIVATION MATTERS
by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
You already know that, no matter what kind of plot you’re building, it’s gotta be motivated by your characters in order to feel plausible. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing an emotional plot or an action plot or both — what makes it work is the characters.

So what IS it that makes your characters do what they do? Or another way of asking that is, what makes anybody do what they do?

There are all kinds of theories of motivation, and they all boil down to the same thing.

We want to be Okay.

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Whatever it takes to be okay, that’s what motivates us.

Maslow talked about that, saying that to be Okay we first need Food and Water…yep, okay…Shelter…got it…then Safety…and in most books, those issues are pretty well taken care of. Sometimes you’ll get characters fleeing the murderer in the North Woods or laid off from the factory job, but food isn’t usually a driving motivation.

So we get into the next level of what people need to be Okay, which is Belonging / Acceptance / Love. Then there’s Respect of Others and Self-Respect, and finally there’s the drive to Be All You Can Be. Everywhere along that continuum, you’ve got some great motivators.

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And that matters, because it’s the motivation that makes a character interesting.

Some writers start with the motivation: “let’s see, a woman who’s motivated by the desire for adventure would be THIS type of person.” Other writers start with the character: “my heroine wants to sail to Jamaica, so that must mean she’s motivated by adventure.”

Either way works fine. And either way leaves you totally free to write any kind of story you want.

 

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Say, given this heroine who wants to sail to Jamaica in search of adventure, could your story be full of soul-deep emotion? Absolutely. Dizzying suspense? Yep. Heartwarming faith? Yep. Quirky humor? Yep. Spine-tingling terror? Yep.

It all depends on how you write it.

So in that case, why does the heroine’s motivation even matter?

Because it’s what makes her credible. Same as we can’t have pink-elephant aliens showing up in some 14th-century castle without sacrificing a bit of credibility, neither can we have this woman sailing off to Jamaica without SOME plausible motivation.

And that’s where it’s easy for us authors to fall down on the job. We love this heroine who’s rigging out her sailboat, we love that she’s going to Jamaica, and we know that on the way she’ll meet this incredibly witty sailor, there’ll be a pirate attack — oh, and the pirate ship will have a yellow parrot named Sidney! — it’s all taking shape. We KNOW it’ll work, because we can SEE this story.

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But it’s that dazzling clarity which can get us into trouble. Because our readers weren’t IN on this first glorious flash of inspiration. They can’t see that wonderful vision. All they see is a heroine rigging out her sailboat for a trip to Jamaica, and they have no idea why she’s doing it.

Unless the readers GET her desire for adventure, they’re gonna feel out of the loop. They might not know why the story isn’t working for them, but they’re missing her motivation.

And motivation is what makes a book memorable.

 

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For some writers, it comes so naturally that they never even question how their characters’ motivation will feed into the plot. (Which sometimes leaves them at loose ends, wondering what on earth can HAPPEN during their plot.)

For others, it’s more of a tack-on because their strength is in plotting. (Which sometimes leaves them wondering how to explain WHY this character did something that seems senseless but is actually integral to the plot.)

Either way, motivation is vital. And yet we’ve all found ourselves in trouble with motivation every now and then. So that’s my question for yoL6u:
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When was the last time you found yourself dealing with a problem character? Who was this person? What did he or she do? How did you resolve the situation?

Everybody here will be able to sympathize with such a situation, because pesky characters strike EVERY writer! And if 25 people post today, one of ’em will win help for all their future characters,with free registration to my “Plotting Via Motivation” class (at WriterUniv.com) next month.

Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see those pesky characters on parade — because it’s always a lot more fun to read about other people’s problems than to focus on our own. :)

Laurie, hoping today will be slow at work so I can check email sooner than lunchtime…but don’t worry if it takes a while to hear back; I’m definitely checking in!

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42 thoughts on “WHY MOTIVATION MATTERS”

  1. Great post Laurie! Whenever I get stuck I always try and re-focus on my character’s motivation, but only because I’ve taken classes with you before! :)

  2. The last problem character I dealt with was my heroine’s ex. I don’t want him to be so unsympathetic or so sympathetic that readers can’t understand her indecision about reconciling with him.

    I have tried showing him one way in one scene and the other in the next, but he seems inconsistent. How would knowing his motivation help?

    Best,
    Naomi

    1. Naomi, if he’s a supporting character we don’t need to be as clear on his motivation as we would if he’s a main character. But you’re absolutely right in wanting him to be plausible!

      Try thinking about what he wants out of life. Maybe his short-term goal was leaving his wife only now it’s shifted to reconciling with his wife, but what’s driving him? With that drive in mind, you can make him more realistic — and keep readers in suspense as to whether or not she’ll get back with him. ???

  3. Showing the character’s motivation in the plot is hard! Especially when it extends to more than one or two characters. Pretty soon everyone seems to need motivation and their desires are criss-crossing all over each other. I have a character in my historical novel who appears later in the book, a young girl that becomes my hero’s love interest. I gave her the motivation of being adventurous and longing to see other places than her small seaside town, because my plot needed the hero to follow her to the big city. It seems clumsy. I’m looking forward to starting from scratch with a new story. This one has been difficult.

    1. I’m not writing classic romance anymore although the married hero and heroine in FIRST WE KILL ALL THE ZOMBIES have more than the usual pressure on them. They love each other madly and would each sacrifice themselves for the other. The problem I ran into was Derek had no sympathy for zombies — to him they were already corpses, but Clara thought if they were breathing they were alive.

      Each had to bring their opinion closer to the middle. Derek was a snap. He’s not hardhearted, he’s just a pragmatist. Clara however went kicking and screaming into realizing that, yes, zombies were once human, but now they’re like a dog with rabies — dangerous as hell.

      I gave Clara a couple of challenges that helped adjust her viewpoint but it was a struggle for both of us.

      Cool workshop, Laurie. Of course yours always are.

      1. Connie, I like your idea of giving Clara some challenges that helped change her viewpoint — it’s so much more believable that she’ll respond to actual events, rather than just deciding “hmm, maybe I’ve been wrong about this.” But, drat it, that IS a hard thing to go through with your characters, especially the ones you really like. :)

  4. Great post, Laurie. Mulling on this, I see that you’re right – it’s all about motivation. When I know why a character is doing something, and that it springs from a soul-deep place, that’s what sucks me into a story. That’s also what keeps me with it.

    Thanks for your detailed description of how this works. I love the way you explain things. I always ‘get it’! :)

  5. Pink-elephant aliens…you always make things so easy to understand…even if I didn’t realize something existed as a problem to be solved, I learn not only how it shows up in writing — in this case, explains why sometimes characters just seem like cardboard — but also how it can be solved.

    1. Celia, understanding pink-elephant aliens is a lovely bonus — I’m glad you picked up something extra from this blog! Although the part about being able to avoid cardboard characters might be more useful, it’s not nearly as fun an image. :)

  6. Dana, starting from scratch is a great way to make sure all the important characters have a clear motivation. Of course, sometimes that means they wouldn’t likely DO something that the plot requires, but if you start with who the characters are you won’t wind up with them in situations they’d never go for.

    The alternative, which a lot of action-adventure authors use, is focusing so fully on the plot that the characters don’t really NEED to be plausible — they’re just there to uncover clues, have shoot-outs with bad guys, and so on. That also works fine; it’s just a trade-off!

  7. I cut my writer teeth on Goal-Motivation-Conflict, so I tend to “see” my characters in everyday life, ask myself what they’re doing in that life, and than ask what will knock them off- center. That gives me a goal – or task – that intrudes on life as they know it. Then I need a motivation strong enough to make them take action.

    I usually with a short-term goal and motivation. My current heroine needs to go out of state to check on her aunt’s welfare, then get back to the job where she expects to get a promotion. She finds her aunt having a different problem than the one she thought she’d find, but her motivation stays the same. To fix the problem(s), and go back to her job. By the end of the book, she finds her aunt has a health condition . At that point, her motivation – and goal – change.

    I’m writing mystery, so my villain, the suspects, really all my major characters have their own motivations for their actions.

    Huh. I just realized something. I read about the 5 motives for murder somewhere , and 3 of them can tie into motivation for about anything. Passion, Profit, and Protection. My heroine’s motivation falls under protecting her aunt. Cool.

    Thanks for the terrific post, Laurie, and for this ah-ha moment. :)

    Light,
    Nancy Haddock

  8. By the way, the other 2 motives for murder that can still tie to motivation in other realms are Panic and Psychosis.

    I keep thinking I read these in a a book by the marvelous Carolyn Hart, but it’s been so long ago, I can’t swear to that.

    Light,
    Nancy

    1. Nancy, how COOL getting a rundown of the five motivations for murder!

      I think some of those, like profit, might actually be a goal — but as long as they work to motivate your characters, that’s what matters most. And now I’m gonna start reading mysteries with those magic five in mind; it’ll be cool spotting each one in turn.

  9. The hero in our latest release had a lot to overcome. He thought he’d left a lot of baggage behind when he’d married the woman of his dreams. His inner drive and motivation to keep every piece of his (and her) life under control–because that’s what he’s been taught makes a man–was actually cracking the foundation of the same marriage he wanted to protect.
    We dragged him down and only by reaching rock bottom, he was able to understand that his behaviour would be the cause of his demise.
    We see our characters as real people who make mistakes and have problems. Confronting the source of the issues is the way to go in those cases and that’s how they solve their problems in the stories, too.

    1. Chris, your idea of seeing the characters as real people is a great way to get right down to the core of their motivation…after all, what’s true for real-life people is also true for those on the page.

      And the fun part is that they very rarely realize on page 2 that they need to change their behavior to change a problem, which means we readers get to enjoy watching ’em go through all KINDS of contortions along the way!

  10. Every time I get stuck, I go back to my plotting via motivation tool. If it doesn’t make sense why the character is doing what they’re doing…the shouldn’t be doing it. And even though I’ve taken your class umpteen times, I’m always happy to repeat it to get your insightful guidance. As always–great article Laurie. See you in class!

    1. Sheryl, it’ll be great having you in the class — I love reading books by people who’ve used those worksheets; it’s such fun to see what started as very basic points unfold in a wonderfully rich story like Donor. :)

  11. For me, finding my character’s primary motivator takes time and patience because it’s never what I thought it was when I dreamed up the character. Because we can’t choose our character’s primary motivator! This motivation comes from the character and not from you. As an author, being able to hand out my character’s primary motivator the way I do his or her height and eye color would really help. Unfortunately if you’re creating real characters, ones who’ll leap off the page and grab the reader, you have to let them tell (or show) YOU their motivation. And to make matters worse, my characters sometimes lie to me. Well, they may not actually be lying because they may not realize what motivates them, they may think they do but chances are, they’re wrong. The best way to find out their motivation is to look at their backstory, where they came from, decisions they’ve made in the past and look at what they do when faced with a decision. For the sake of your plot, you may need them to choose path A and you have every confidence they will–this is your story, right? But if that character chooses path B in spite of you shooing him toward A, then you’ve succeeded in creating a truly whole person because he’s staying true to himself and his core value aka primary motivation.

  12. And let me just add–as if I hadn’t already said enough!–that if my job situation wasn’t precarious, I would be signed up for this class again.

    Anyone who hasn’t taken it, or any of Laurie’s classes, you should!! Awesome workshop. Awesome teacher.

    1. Carol, thanks for the endorsement — and, shoot, I’m sorry about your precarious job situation! (You’re going on my prayer list right now.)

      But you’re so right about the wonder of seeing a character stay true to his or her own personality, even when that doesn’t fit the plot as originally devised…some people find it easier to change the character and others the plot, while others figure growing ’em both will save time in the end. Isn’t it amazing that ANY of those approaches can work?

  13. I have a problem motivating my heroine to get going in Book 2 of her series. She solved all her problems in book 1. (Well, all the problems except that she’s ambitious, undertrained, and has access to a lot of temptation… )

    Time to go back to my “Laurie-Class”notes I believe.

    1. Vicky, you’re gonna have all KINDS of fun with those pesky problems in Book Two. Because really, she’s kind of like a (very entertaining) disaster waiting to happen, and what’s so cool is that she doesn’t know it yet. Talk about a major journey ahead… :)

  14. In earlier versions of my novel, Ghostly Liaison, Bridget (who’d been in a near-fatal accident and pretty much had to start her life from scratch) made decisions because that’s where I needed the story to go. Of course, as I wrote the story, I came to understand the why of it all, but apparently I wasn’t getting it through to the reader. When a reader asked me why did Bridget ride her bike to work in the rain instead of having her mother drive her, or after Bridget crashed her bike, why didn’t she just go home and get help, I realized then what I needed to do and it ended up being so simple. I just showed, via a conversation with her over-worrying mother, what she was trying to escape, and that going back for help (even though that made sense) was going in the wrong direction (in her mind).

    It would certainly help ME if I knew my characters’ motivation earlier, but I can’t seem to write that way at all. I just have to remember to show it in earlier scenes once I do understand that character, since it takes writing about them for me to understand them.

    1. Stacy, you’ve got a good plan worked out — going back to show the motivation once the character’s already taken shape works just fine in terms of making things clear for the reader.

      And, too, you can keep ’em guessing for a while because they’ll have fun trying to figure out what’s driving Bridget (for instance) as long as they don’t wind up feeling impatient: “wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense.” The only tricky part is finding the right place to SHOW those clues, but you sure nailed it in that conversation!

  15. I’ve seen a lot of talk lately about giving characters “agency” rather than having then walk through book scenes like pieces of cardboard. It seems like motivation is the key to agency (letting them move the plot, not be moved by it). What better way to get into their heads than to know what’s driving them to take action?

    Great post, Laurie. Can’t wait to see you in person at the Tucson Festival of Books!

    1. Kristi, that’s a wonderful definition of agency for characters — and I like how it all comes down to motivation, because that IS what makes ’em do whatever they do.

      Then the fact that it helps move the plot along is just a very handy bonus :) and BOY am I with you in looking forward to TFoB!

  16. Laurie,
    I find writing each scene flows better if I have what the character is trying to accomplish at the back of my mind. When you describe how important motivation is, it feels obvious but takes practice to keep everything moving.

    Lovely post!
    Laura

    1. Laura, isn’t it amazing how much practice this kind of thing takes? I think it’s because we tend to be conditioned by viewing shows where the characters move around and do things which are fascinating to watch, but where we don’t necessarily know what’s driving ’em to do that.

      Then when a different kind of show comes along, it’s captivating — and that’s exactly what we want our books to be. :)

  17. Sliding in late, but I just had to come over here and get a couple of pesky characters off my chest. Actually, I would love to chase about a dozen of them completely off the planet, but then I’d be in a pickle when it came to casting future WIPs.

    I always seem to be getting my bloomers caught on the barbed wire between the motivation-knowers and the plot-knowers. In my current WIP, I’ve got the hero’s motivation: He’s scheduled to hang and he’d like to avoid that if at all possible, but what he REALLY needs is to let go of the past. I’ve got the heroine’s motivation: She’d like something, anyhing, to break up the boring routine of small-town life, but what she REALLY needs is self-esteem. I’ve got a sorta-plot: Heroine breaks Hero out of jail, using the 4th of July Celebration as a cover. (This is 10-15K words, so I don’t need an epic plot — which is a good thing, because at the moment I don’t have one.)

    Marrying the very slim plot and the characters’ motivations is driving me batty. I have a feeling I’ll be solving this one with bailing wire…or a lot of tequila.

    I so need to dig up my Plotting via Motivation notes. *sigh

    1. Kathleen, you found your answer right there at the end! And it’s handy you don’t need an enormous plot; sounds like what you’ve got is perfect for a 12,500-word story.

      Remember Question 6 from the homework? That’s gonna give you all the up-and-down complications you need to start with those clear goals (escape hanging and boredom) and let the motivation carry the rest. And it sounds like you’ll have a VERY fun story!

  18. Laurie,
    What a great blog on how to connect with the reader. It’s so true that my favorite characters have motivations that not only make sense but I share. Now that I have my character’s motivation nailed down, its time to master the “show” and “not tell” way reveal a character’s motivation organically so it doesn’t feel forced (I have a villain that doesn’t directly interact with my herione much until the climax that is giving me fits with this one) thanks,
    Christy

    1. Christy, I’m so glad you mentioned the villain — you’ve got his motivation (not his goal) established as well, right? Once you’ve got that established for ANY character, although admittedly the minor ones don’t really need any, it’s guaranteed that they’re gonna run into some kind of conflict just through everyday living — and assuming this villain and heroine both have their motivation as well as a goal, you can sit back and watch the sparks fly. (Er, not the same kind of sparks as she’ll have with the hero. :) )

  19. Sorry to be late, but I wanted to express just how intregal to my writing your Plot via Motivation class has been. I tend to come up with my plot first and then the basic characterization. The final step is to keep asking why they do what they do throughout the book. And when I get stuck, I break out my Plot via Motivation notes. Works every time.

    1. Vicki, it’s always nice to hear the tools are still working! I sure can’t claim they’re a “must have” for every writer, but hearing how many people use ’em over and over and over is a wonderful thing — thanks for letting me know.

  20. I’m writing a sweet novella for a compilation and was told by my book coach that I don’t know what my character’s motivation is and I don’t understand them. It’s 1901; her domineering father wants her to become a teacher. She wants to be a doctor. He won’t allow her to associate with young men. She wants to get married–something young women can’t do in the early 1900s. While confident in some areas of her life, she doesn’t have the confidence to go against her father. In defiance, she slips away to spy on the young man who lives across the lane from her grandma and feels those stirrings of attraction. Is wanting to become a doctor and marry a strong enough motivation?

    Can’t wait for class to begin. Carol

    1. Carol, I’m sorry I only now saw your post! Marrying and becoming a doctor are both goals, and they’re good-noble goals; we’ll be rooting for her to achieve them both. But a goal isn’t a motivation — a goal is FED by motivation. Still, I like your idea of her slipping away to scope out the young man…it sounds like a fun story. :)

    1. Spencer, you’re so right — most people don’t go around articulating their motivations. Most people don’t even KNOW their motivations, any more than we know our own genomes or whatever it is that makes us who we are.

      Often the character is the last to know; people around this person (especially readers) suspect their motivation sooner…and then the readers feel all the more triumphant when the character finally recognizes it as well. But of course they have to go through a lot of turmoil along the way, which is what makes the story fascinating!

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