Discovering Your Characters’ Motivation

by RS on October 8, 2013

Each day Jo Eberhardt, one of my co-moderators and a friend of our Facebook writing group, posts a pretty picture of a number to mark the date and a quote related to the craft of that resonates with all of us (a recent one that received quite a bit of traction had to do with cats, and it appears we’re a group of animal lovers). A recent quote was from Jean Jacques Rousseau in which he wrote: “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.” Followed by Jo’s question: “How was your writing today? Did you learn anything new about your writing, your story, or your characters?”

It didn’t spark many comments, partly due to the weekend, but a new member remarked that she was struggling with her novel’s set up and didn’t believe that it was convincing even after cutting several scenes and rewriting them. On further questioning another member suggested that perhaps her characters didn’t have plausible motives to be in the story.

That hit a chord with me because I had a similar issue. I knew Corinne’s objective was to launch this leftist magazine and the reason behind it was to return to her ideological and intellectual roots. I also knew the Alvah’s goal was to see his book turned into a film, but as a ghost he’s somewhat incapacitated, yet what motivated him to appear to Corinne was because obsession with his book and the Spanish Civil War. It’s her fascination that puts the bee in his bonnet to push her to achieve this goal (which she believes is hers). But the others were murky and I struggled of why I should keep them in the story. Then I realized that in my elevator pitch I had the operative phrase “…recognizes the paranoia of the Red Scare era continues to thrive in the 21st century.”

So I questioned what were the key components of the Red Scare: paranoia, betrayals, loyalty to the cause, spying and informing. That’s when I realized that I needed to include these elements in the story. My characters needed to be more nefarious. Some of it is triggered by mental illness, ideology, greed, and social standing and ambition.

In the back and forth exchange of the thread, Jo jumped in and mentioned that she outlined her story multiple times from the perspective of each character. Now I now what you’re thinking that’s a lot of work and you want to finish your novel, but I thought it was brilliant idea and well worth the effort.  Plus, I am curious of how other writers outline because I’m still stuck in that grade school mode of those nasty traditional outlines. Here’s Jo’s example using The Three Little Pigs:

Outline 1: Little Pig 1

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Chapter 1 – Decides to move out of home.

Chapter 2 – Builds house of straw.

Chapter 3 – Is threatened by BBW, but defies him.

Chapter 4 – House falls down, runs to LP2’s house.

Chapter 5 – Backs up his brother.

Chapter 6 – House falls down, runs to LP3’s house.

Chapter 7 – Backs up his brother.

Chapter 8 – Hides in the cupboard.

Chapter 9 – Cheers when BBW is defeated.

 

Outline 2: Little Pig 2

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Chapter 1 – Decides to move out of home.

Chapter 2 – Finds a stick merchant and buys sticks.

Chapter 3 – Builds house of sticks.

Chapter 4 – Feels superior when LP1 arrives, and gloats about stick futures.

Chapter 5 – Is threatened by BBW, but defies him.

Chapter 6 – House falls down, runs to LP3’s house.

Chapter 7 – Backs up his brother.

Chapter 8 – Hides under the bed.

Chapter 9 – Cheers when BBW is defeated.

 

Outline 3: Little Pig 3

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Chapter 1 – Talks about moving out of home, and rolls eyes when brothers follow suit.

Chapter 2 – Warns LP1 that straw is a poor building material, and finds a brick merchant.

Chapter 3 – Buys bricks, hires architect and gets building licence.

Chapter 4 – Hears about LP1’s loss, and warns LP2 that sticks make a poor building material.

Chapter 5 – Finishes building brick house, and sends housewarming invitation to LP1 & LP2.

Chapter 6 – LP1 & LP2 turn up for housewarming, but say they’re going to move in. This is not ideal.

Chapter 7 – Is threatened by BBW, but defies him.

Chapter 8 – Shows brothers to safe points hidden under bed and inside cupboard. Develops plan to defeat BBW.

Chapter 9 – Defeats BBW. Introduces brothers to architect. Throws party.

 

Outline 4: Big Bad Wolf

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Chapter 1 – Family kicks him out because he’s an embarrassment. Who ever heard of a vegetarian wolf?

Chapter 2 – Wanders alone until he hatches a plan. If he catches a pig and takes him home, his family will love him again.

Chapter 3 – Comes across a pig in a straw house. (Sertiously, a straw house??) Threatens him. Badly. He’s never done this before.

Chapter 4 – Feels defeated, leans against the house, and the whole thing collapses. Is so shocked, forgets to chase pig.

Chapter 5 – Eventually tracks pig to a stick house. Threatens him, and is a bit scared to realise there are two of them now.

Chapter 6 – Kicks the house in frustration, and the whole thing collapses. Wants to chase one of the pigs, but his tail is caught in the falling sticks.

Chapter 7 – Eventually tracks pigs to impressive brick mansion. He’s about to leave when his brother shows up and taunts him. With renewed determination, he approaches the house and threatens the pigs inside. (What do you mean there’s three??? Are they breeding???)

Chapter 8 – Pushes and kicks and bashes and punches and can’t make the house fall down.

Chapter 9 – About to give up when LP3 tricks him into climbing down the chimney. He barely survives. Is mocked by brother again, but channels his Inner Little Pig and stands up for himself, tells his brother to F off, and heads to San Fran, the land of flowers and honey, where a vegetarian wolf can stand proud.

If you’re scratching your head and still wondering what motivates your characters, try Jo’s method. I know I still have some questions about my two bad guys. I definitely will be using this method to figure it and them out. And to read more about Jo’s life and writing adventures, check her blog out, The Happy Logophile at joeberhardt.com.

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