Thursday, December 22, 2011


During my forced time off from my rewrite, something occurred to me about a moment in my WiP2 that's going to be a bit problematic. It's one of those watershed moments where a character makes a choice that will determine the course his life will take. So it makes for excellent story.
Only... the motivation was off. Or more accurately, the perception of the motivation was off.

To my mind, characterization is the reason why a character is who he is. Motivation is the reason why a character does what he does.

Actually, it's more the reason behind the reason. For example, commitment phobia might be a reason why a guy won't marry, but the reaction that caused the phobia as a result of something in the past is the motivation. In the case above, distrust as a result of his wife cheating on him with his best man would be his motivation.

Characters can have more than one motivation, but most importantly, each motivation will have a significant effect on how the character reacts to others or on how he lives and sees life. For example, Mr. Commitment-Phobe might start distrusting women in general, and then struggle with the idea of marriage as he falls in love. But then, since he was betrayed, he'll also very likely struggle to trust his love-interest around his friends or vice versa. 

It's vitally important that the motivation is carried through the character as far as it can conceivably go, because if it doesn't go all the way, the motivation will be seen as weak and it will impact on the story. If I stumbled over the above example in the story, I would think that his phobia was on over-reaction if he didn't show at least some indication of it when his love interest is talking with his best friend. If this didn't happen, it cheapens the situation and takes the depth out of the story.

Another important factor to consider: perception vs reality. What I mean with this is the reader's perception based on the character's actions vs. the actual reason behind the action as known to the author. It's not that common that a character's motivation is kept from the reader until the end of the story, since the conflict that comes as a result of character motivations can make for some wonderful story, because the journey of discovery of the character's motivation makes for good reading. But not if the reader leaps to the wrong conclusion as to what motivates a character.

If the reader decides that a reader won't marry because he's selfish in some way, there's a problem. Because whether or not this conclusion was wrong, it will affect how the reader will perceive the story's events, as well as whether he/she will be able to stick through the story all the way to the big reveal.

The reader can be kept on the right track, though, through leaving clues to the motivation or by showing that the opposite of the wrong conclusion is true. For example, if there's a chance of a reader thinking that Mr. Commitment-Phobe is nothing but a selfish bastard, show him at his most generous. Maybe let him take a kid under his wing. Something like that. Something that shows that not only is the guy generous, he's only worried about committing to a woman. 

What about you? How do you handle motivation - especially for difficult characters?   


  1. That's something I've been grappling with myself. But often I take a little break from the crash writing and when I come back I mostly can do it with renewed energy.

  2. This is an excellent post, Misha, on character development. It certainly points out the need for the writer to really know her characters.

    And thanks for stopping by and wishing me and my family a blessed Christmas. I'm returning the wish for you, too!
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

  3. I may struggle with this in situations where I try to over analyze something. Not over plot or over outline but over analyze. I stop letting the character speak through me, braking in with my 200 cents. However, when I've allowed the character to flow, the motivation works its way out and I can go back and do re-emphasis of this motivation during revision and edits.

  4. I just have problems finding the time to write. Good luck!!!

  5. The main character in my wip is in a similar dilemma to what you're talking about, and your observations are so true. I'm still trying to work it out, but you've added a great insight for me.

    And thank you for your comments on my personal delimma. It's good to know that others understand what I'm talking about.

  6. Motivation is an issue for a lot of my characters. One in particular--but I usually have trouble making sure characters' reactions/actions are realistic.

  7. I've made the mistake before of assuming my readers understood my character's motivations. Oops! Turns out I was wrong.

    Great post!!!!

  8. No problem with the motivations, just making them obvious because they were all up in my head.

  9. How I handle it probably depends on the character.
    Often it will be by showing how another character perceives the character in question.
    Sometimes a narrator will talk about their own motivation.
    Clues can be good, but they can mislead too.

  10. I try to plot everything out before I write. Usually I start with a list of characters and ask myself questions to make sure I know for certain the why and the how. Then when I begin a story, I don't lack for motivation because I know the direction to the end.

  11. Great post Misha - Happy Holidays! :)

  12. Hola guapa ya llega la Navidad donde compartimos alegrías con los familiares y amigos, estos días
    tan señalados deseo pases unas ¡¡felices fiestas!!.
    un abrazo.

  13. Great post, sorry I'm late to the game-- Stina posted a link in her round-up today :)

    This has given me some food for thought. My hero's motivations are held back til about 2/3 through and so I should probably do a list of wrong conclusions and make sure those are refuted through his actions.


  14. Angela I'm glad that you found value in my post.

    I don't think a hidden motivation is wrong, as long as the reader isn't allowed to jump to conclusions that make them hate a character when he/she's supposed to love him.


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