You write fiction because you’re inspired; you have many ideas you want to share. Unfortunately, the nitty gritty of writing can be challenging.
Sooner or later, your inspiration flags. You despise your characters and decide that your plot is silly.
Want to light a fire under your characters? Motivate them. Writing becomes easier when you know your characters’ motivations.
It’s much easier to write fiction when your characters are motivated
Why do your characters do what they do? One reason: they’re motivated. “Motivation” is defined as “a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.” That’s well and good, but when you write fiction, aim to take your characters a step beyond normal motivation.
We’re all motivated for one reason or another.
Consider your own motivations. Why do you go to work? One reason might be that you need to pay your bills. It’s strong motivation, but it’s not life and death motivation. If you lose your job you can get another one.
When you motivate your characters, aim for deep motivation — give your characters strong motivation so that they’ll fight for what they want.
Deep motivation is often rooted in childhood and can be unconscious. Have you ever acted in a way you felt was right at the time — then realized later that you were in the wrong?
Give your characters reasons for acting as they do. Your characters must have reasons and motivations to change. Those reasons, actions, and changes, are your plot.
Let’s look at some tips to develop your characters’ motivation.
1. Your characters act because they must
Your characters’ motivation is easy: it’s what you say it is. So you can motivate your characters to do anything you wish — but you must know their motivation AND they must act because of that motivation.
Readers need to see why your characters act the way they do and that becomes the spine of your book.
Consider Elizabeth Bennet’s motivation for rejecting Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.
After her rejection, she learns that she’s mistaken in him; he learns that he ’s mistaken in her. She feels that she’s lost him, but:
He who, she had been persuaded, would avoid her as his greatest enemy, seemed, on this accidental meeting, most eager to preserve the acquaintance, and without any indelicate display of regard, or any peculiarity of manner, where their two selves only were concerned, was soliciting the good opinion of her friends, and bent on making her known to his sister.
Jane Austen gives both Elizabeth and Darcy motivations for their actions. The characters make mistakes. They change. Jane Austen shows why they’ve changed.
2. Give your characters big goals as well as little goals for every scene
Although your characters will have large goals which motivate them, they’ll have smaller goals too.
In Pride & Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet knows her situation; she knows that she needs to marry for economic security because Longbourn House is entailed on her father’s cousin. However, she has smaller goals as well. She loves her parents and her sisters and does whatever she can to make them happy.
When you create a scene, choose goals for your characters in that scene. You need to know why your characters act as they do; their motivations must make sense to your readers.
Allow your characters to fail. In real life, you might hesitate to become a whistleblower. Fictional characters face danger. Force them to confront danger, but ensure that you motivate them to do it.
3. Build motivation to develop real conflict
Real life is complex. In daily life, we do things for all kinds of reasons, and often, for no reason at all. Other people act in mysterious ways. Our actions can affect others and we can be unaware of it.
When you write fiction however, your characters’ actions always have motivations and consequences — and you show that. Readers know why.
You’re the author and as long as you make your characters’ motivations clear to readers and follow through on the consequences, you can manipulate your characters in any way you choose.
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