Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why'd She Do That?


We all have it.

Our characters all need it.

But what is the motivation? Do you know why your characters are doing what they're doing? Do you even know why you're doing what you're doing? I'm not always sure I do.

Yesterday PJ Hoover had an awesome blog post on this over at Roots in Myth and the conversation in the comments was fascinating - even if it did devolve somewhat into what would Scarlet O'Hara do if confronted with a vampire.

It all started with this question: Does the main character's motivation have to be pre-existing or can it be a result of the instigating factor of the story? For example: A vampire shows up and chases a girl. Her motivation is to get away from the vampire.

She didn't have this motivation before the vampire showed up, but it is clearly the motivation that keeps the tension high during the story.

In order for a character to be more than a cipher there has to be a pre-existing motivation. Scarlet O'Hara's motivation at the beginning of the story was to get Ashley Wilkes, by the end she wanted to save Tara. All along she really wanted to save herself. If a vampire showed up, her concern would be 'what could this vampire do for me?' Would he get me my drapes back in the windows? Could he help me save Tara? If the answer was no, that vampire would find itself with a stake through it's heart pretty fast (and yes, the Scarlet from the end of the novel could definitely do that). What if the vampire showed up in the beginning? If it would work to make Ashley jealous, she would have gone along with just about anything.

A story is not a biography. It does not detail all the aspects of a characters life (even a fictional character). A story tells of something that happened. Something changes in a person's life - that is the starting point for the story.

One way or another the motivation has to be impacted by the instigating factor. Scarlet's initial motivation is to wed Ashley, the war interferes and her motivation changes with it.

What if the story was about someone who wanted to be number one in her class but a really smart kid transferred in. The motivation remains the same, but now there is a complicating factor - the complicating factor is what makes it a story.

In When Mike Kissed Emma (you knew I had to bring it around to this, I'm still in countdown mode) Emma's motivation is to sing a romantic song with her boyfriend during the school play. She's all about the romance of it with the existing boyfriend. Then Mike shows up and complicates matters. I won't tell you if it changes her motivation or not - don't want to give anything away.

So what's your motivation? Is it to get away from the vampires, or something else?

Countdown: 7 days (1 week!)


  1. So in GWTW, the war was much like the vampire. Something inconvenient that came along and foiled Scarlett's plans. But the war really does a lot to drive the plot forward. And Scarlett wants the war to be over.

    So much of the time when we talk about motivation, we come up with the "my character wants life to return to normal" but I'm thinking this is not good enough. Because even a normal life has a motivation.

  2. I think that's key: "return to normal" while a basic motivation during a story isn't really enough of a motivation to make the character a well rounded person.

  3. I'm so glad the two of you started this discussion - since, as you know from my latest submission, this is an area I need to work on. (Also, I am thoroughly amused by the image of Scarlett O'Hara, Vampire Slayer.)