Friday, March 23, 2012

Character Motivation by Bobbi Miller

Who were your favorite characters when you were a young reader? Jo, of Little Women? Mattie, in True Grit? The Artful Dodger, in Oliver Twist? Emma, of Jane Austin fame? What about Huckleberry Finn? Why are we so drawn to certain characters? The key to creating compelling characters is for the writer to establish strong character motivation. Often in rejections, editors highlight interesting characters and plot, but so-what? Why does this character want what she wants? 

The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If  the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next.

An easy method to use in understanding your character’s motivation is simply to ask her. Just as you ask your friend or your significant other why s/he is doing something, ask your character.  This is a freewrite exercise, no holds barred.  Ask your character why does she yearn for this thing? What’s so important about it that she’s willing to take risks to get it? What is she willing to risk for it?  How would she describe her current situation? If you hear inconsistencies in your character’s answers, don’t discard them, or ignore them! These inconsistencies make your character more human, and that means more authentic. 

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, you’ll discover that your character does not always understand her behavior.  This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect.  What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.”  Your character’s  confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story. 

 At the core of your character’s confusion is her inner struggle. This inner struggle is what your character brings to the plot. It’s there before the story begins. It’s the struggle that is holding her back in life. And she’ll carry this struggle throughout her story.  James Scott Bell offers an experiment to help discover your character’s inner struggle:  Write down the one positive character you want to the reader to understand most about your character. Is she determined,  for example? Now, list those aspects that battle this characteristic, such as her timidity, or self-doubt. The presents the character’s inner struggle:  she is fighting with herself to achieve her goals.  Understanding how inner struggle influences motivation transforms your character “from plain vanilla to dynamic and dimensional.” (James Scott Bell, The Art of War For Writers, 2009)

And the key to understanding your character’s motivation is understanding your character’s history, called her backstory.  Backstory is defined as simply what happened before the present story begins.  Using backstory with care helps the reader to bond with your character. It deepens the relationship because it engages emotion and sympathy. Your character’s history relates to her inner struggle.   As Dr Phil tells us, our past affects our present. Understanding this psychological make-up of your character adds depth to your story. 

In another freewrite exercise, ask your character: What and why did she choose to wear those particular clothes? What is her attitude – about her family, her neighborhood, her friends?  How did your character grow up, was she loved, and what did she lose that helped shape her personality? What is your character’s disposition? How does she define herself? If you asked your character, “who are you”, how would she answer?

Of course,  you won’t have to use everything you discover about your character.  But, if you don’t know everything about your character, it shows in your writing!

Remember, the hero needs opposition to make her story worthwhile. Opposing characters simply stand contrary to your character. The antagonist may simply be all who disagree with the hero’s tactics. Villains, on the other hand, are usually dedicated to the destruction of the hero.  Christopher Vogler describes the difference between antagonist and villains: “Antagonists and heroes in conflict are like horses in a team pulling in different directions, while villains and heroes in conflict are like trains on a head-on collision course.” (Writer’s Journey, 1992)

Like the hero, villains also need their motivation.  Just as you sat down with your main character, spend some time talking to your villain.  Why does she oppose your character? Why must she have this thing? What’s so important about it that she’s willing to take risks to get it? What is she willing to risk for it? How would your villain describe her current situation? How would she describe your lead character? How would she describe her relationship with the hero?

And, like the hero, your villain has a history. And this history influences her motivation. Unless she was born evil, and few people are, villains were born human. Dean Koontz once offered that the best villains evoke pity, even sympathy, as well as terror.  Sympathy for a villain, deepens a story.  A bully doesn’t pick on someone just to be mean. Why did she become a bully?  What would your villain say about her family?  How was your villain raised? Did she experience a traumatic turning point that changed her emotionally?

In the end, villains are people, too.

However, as Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, 1997) warns, you never know what you will find when you explore the depths of your character. When you explore the depths and shadows of your characters, you are touching upon your own shadows and fears. But this inner exploration is the key to creating memorable characters.

Says Ralph Keyes (The Courage To Write, 1995), “Daring is always more riveting than skill. Any juggler knows that the real crowd pleaser isn’t his hardest task, such as keeping five balls in the air. The biggest oohs and ahhs are reserved for feats that look as though they could main him…Bold writers have the same relationship to readers that a juggler has to his crowd. When they seem to catch an errant machete by the blade, their readers stay glued to the page.”

So, fear not and be bold! Dare to go deeper into your character!

A storycollector,  storyteller, and a writer who teaches writing, Bobbi Miller earned her MFA in children’s writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a MA in children’s literature at Simmons College. Her picturebooks, One Fine Trade (illus. by Will Hillenbrand) and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched (illus. by Megan Lloyd) made the Bank Street College of Education List for Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010. Her third picturebook, Miss Sally Ann and the Panther, will be released in 2012. She is represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary.  Find out more about her process, including her recent article on Voice, on her website

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