Last week, I blogged about conflict, and I told you that when my understanding of conflict finally dawned, it was one of the most profound moments of my writing career. The day I really began to understand motivation was another.
I’d learned all about motivation before I really started writing seriously–or so I thought. Turns out, my biggest lesson would come after I had already published several novels. My learning curve began while I was writing Let it Snow, a contemporary romance novel. I had submitted the finished manuscript to my editor, and she had sent the manuscript back with her hand-written notes all over it. At one point, she had written: “I don’t like your heroine very much here.” That comment devastated me, not from a writerly standpoint, but from a personal one. I’d had my character do, think, or say whatever it was because that’s what I would have thought, said, or done in those circumstances–and, in fact, had thought, said or done in reality.
I was still fairly new to the publishing world at the time, and fairly uncertain. I didn’t want to rock the boat, so most of the time, if my editor suggested something, I believed she knew more than I did and I went with it–whatever “it” was. I learned my lesson later, but that’s another story for another day. This time, however, I decided to put on my big-girl panties and talk to my editor about her comment, and she said something that I’ve never forgotten. She said, “A writer can make me believe anything if it’s motivated well enough.” The problem with my heroine wasn’t caused by what I had her do, think, or say, but in the fact that I didn’t give her a good enough reason on paper to do it.
That was the beginning of my journey to really understand motivation because for the first time, I realized how crucial it really was to a story. In the years since, I’ve heard other editors say roughly the same thing, which leaves me thinking that motivation is one of the key factors that should be concerning those of us who write fiction.
And so, here are five things I’ve learned about motivation over the years.
Lesson #1: Motivation is crucial to a story that works. To keep readers relating to our characters, we must be sure the character is someone the reader understands. The only way to understand another human being, real or imaginary, is to understand their background, their beliefs, their life experience, their hopes, their dreams, and their fears. You don’t want to stop the forward movement of the story for an information dump so you can deliver all the juicy details to the reader, but it’s important that you find clever, subtle ways to deliver the information as the story progresses.
Lesson #2: Cliches can wreak havoc on motivation. A writer who uses cliches often doesn’t see the need to fully motivate a character. A romance hero may think he needs to avoid the heroine for no reason other than that she exists. The protagonist in a Western or spy story may draw his gun without clear provocation. A witness in a mystery novel may share information no real human being would share with a stranger simply because the protagonist asks a question. A character may break up with or walk away from another character simply because the writer has reached the point in the novel where that’s what the character must do for the story to work. Even if that’s the case, the characters thoughts, deeds, and words must be believably motivated or your story will feel weak, and that will likely affect sales of future books.
Lesson #3: Your character’s motivation to do what he’s doing must be strong enough to keep him going when the going gets tough. A candymaker or cake decorator who decides to investigate a murder had better have a good reason for getting involved–something stronger than just a natural curiosity. Your protagonist must have something at stake in the story–something big enough to keep him investigating when danger comes close to home, or to keep him fighting the bad guys when his life is on the line. He can’t keep going simply because you, the author, need him to. Readers need to understand his reasons and accept his reasons, even if they might not make the same choice if they were in his shoes.
Lesson #4: Motivation doesn’t just apply to the big stuff. Yes, it’s important to make sure your protagonist has strong, believable reasons for moving forward- Motivation also applies to the little stuff, like getting up from the chair and walking to the window. Unmotivated stage actions leap off the page and practically scream bad acting. You know what I’m talking about, right? Nothing ruins a good story faster than a bad actor. An actor who moves around on stage, picking up props and putting them down again just so she has something to do can be very distracting. The same is true for characters who recite lines of dialogue without reason, or have conversations that feel unrealistic and contrived.
Lesson #5: Motivation can, and often will, change as your story progresses. The protagonist who starts off investigating the murder of her best friend because the police have ruled it an accidental death may suddenly find her actions and decisions motivated by the need to keep herself safe after someone takes a shot at her. This change in motivation may–at least temporarily–alter her goals, and that’s okay. She may be frightened and decide not to investigate briefly. Before she dives back into the investigation, make sure she’s motivated believably. Her motivation should never be because shes the protagonist in a mystery novel. The romance heroine who ignores her physical attraction for the hero in the beginning of a book because she’s still mourning the death of her husband may later try to ignore her attraction because her kids are upset by the thought of her getting involved with someone new, or because she has learned that he’s on the opposite side of an issue from her.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to motivation. I could talk about it all day, I’m sure, but I have to stop somewhere. So until next time…
Go. Write something!