Laurie Schnebly Campbell stops in to talk to us about Character Motivation. What is it, how to get it!
Romance writers probably envision different M-words than, say, bricklayers or hair stylists. For us, it’s all about — well, let’s see.
Mail from fans.
And — oh, yes — Motivation.
Both our own and our characters’.
It’s amazing how writers in other genres don’t necessarily spend much time thinking about motivation. My son used to be — and maybe still is, but now he’s off at college — a big fan of dragon-fantasy-quest books, so I’d read his favorites as a conversation starter. (Anybody else been through that with their teenager?)
And pretty much every questing hero was motivated by, say, the desire to Save The Kingdom. Or to Slay The Dragon. Or to Befriend The Dragon. Nothing that required much in the way of character development, but which did provide plenty of firestorms.
Those were fabulous books, especially if you like firestorms.
I can just hear my son saying, with equally exquisite courtesy, “My mom’s books are fabulous, especially if you like people falling in love.”
Which certainly CAN involve rip-roaring action, but which tends to emphasize the internal world as well.
That’s where we get into motivation. (And the next several paragraphs will be familiar to those of you who’ve already studied it with me.)
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.
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.
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.
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. Mystical fantasy? Yep. Quirky humor? Yep. The hottest sex imaginable? 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, and 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.
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.
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 they heck can HAPPEN in this 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.)
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 somebody who posts today will win help for all their future characters with free registration to my “Plotting Via Motivation” class at www.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, in the first month of a new job where I’m being VERY scrupulous about checking email only during lunch and after work…so don’t worry if it takes a while to hear back; I’m definitely checking soon!
RU Crew, give Laurie’s questions a shot. Tell us about how you dealt with motivation in one of your characters.
Join us Thursday and Friday when Toni McGee Causey stops by with a POV workshop – you won’t want to miss it!
Laurie Schnebly Campbell (www.booklaurie.com) grew up in a family that discussed psychology around the dinner table. With a marriage counselor for a mother, she felt well equipped to get her romance-novel couples to a happy ending…which might be what helped her win “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts.
The only thing she loves more than writing romance is working with other writers, which is why she now teaches an online class every month and has written a book for novelists who want to create believable characters with built-in fatal (or not quite fatal) flaws.
- Creating Your Hero’s Fatal Flaw
- CTW: His Personality Ladder by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- The Tricky Part by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for August 23-27, 2010: Edie Ramer, Laurie London, Tawny Weber & Laurie Schnebly Campbell
- Ask an Editor: Backstory and Pacing