The Writing Life: Finding Motivation

Motivation comes in a couple of flavors. One is the motivation to write. I mean, you could binge watch the entire seventh season of Dr. Who, read a book, or slog through yet another round of revisions on that novel. Sometimes, especially when you’re hot and tired, writerly motivation is hard to come by.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’m talking about a different kind of motivation.

What motivates your characters?

Deep characters, the kind that really connect with readers, do things for reasons. They don’t wander aimlessly through life, performing random actions for no discernible reason. This is something that’s kept me, as a reader, from truly connecting to Jack Reacher. I have no idea why he does what he does.

In my early writing career, this is something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t general curiosity or a desire to make things right enough of a motivation for someone to investigate a murder? Well, not really. This was brought home to me when I attended a workshop on writing those crucial first fifty pages of a mystery. I was (bravely) answering the workshop leader’s questions until she got to the kicker: “So what? Why would she do this?”

And I couldn’t answer.

At the time, I thought it was horribly unfair. I cried. I wanted to quit writing. How dare this woman criticize my character’s motivation. Couldn’t she see that my character was A Good Person who was Curious and Wanted to Help a Friend? Wasn’t that good enough?

After another friend talked me off the ledge, and I learned a bit more about the craft and writing mysteries in particular, I learned something: No, it really wasn’t good enough.

I continued to struggle with this. I put the manuscript away. I couldn’t quite come up with a motivation for an amateur sleuth that didn’t sound horribly cheesy. I’d never get this. Perhaps I was writing the wrong genre.

Then, in the fall of 2011, I hit on a story idea using a police officer as a protagonist. Yes! This made sense. I loved the character, people loved the story. Yes, learning I was writing police procedural was a bit intimidating (all those facts and details to get right), but suddenly, the major stumbling block was gone. I had character motivation.

He’s a cop. Investigating crime, and murder, is his job. I didn’t have to come up with creative motivation. Problem solved. With four short stories on the market, one on the way, and a novel in the works for The Laurel Highland Mysteries, I’ve found a groove.

I recently remarked to a published writing friend that it felt like a bit of a cheat. She disagreed. “It’s a convention of the genre. He does other things, right? There’s your creative motivations.”

And the lightbulb went on. Of course, his motivation for his other life decisions come out of his core values – which is what drove him to law enforcement in the first place. But it turns out that “sense of duty” and “loyalty” and “dedication to truth and justice” are motivation for lots of things. All valid, all easily (and logically) supported.

Maybe that’s why I relate to procedurals, both as a writer and a reader, easier than cozies. The motivation is clear. I don’t have to think, “Why on earth would Miss Marple even get involved in this?” It’s like trying to imagine myself investigating a murder. I wouldn’t – I’d call the police. My brain just can’t wrap itself around the concept of how to believably get a civilian as a murder investigator (other writers can and it’s one of the things that I  admire about cozy authors – that ability to make me believe random civilian would get involved in murder).

As a writer, you constantly need to be asking yourself this question: So what? Why would he/she do that? Not just for your protagonist. Don’t forget the bad guy. The mustache-twirling, “evil for the sake of it” bad guy is clichéd. Something’s motivating your antagonist? What is it? How does he see himself as the hero of his own story?

We all do things for reasons. We all have motivations. And to write really compelling characters, on both sides of the law, writers must answer that question – So what? Why?

Because when we answer that, we create characters, and stories, that connect with readers. And that’s really what it’s all about.

So tell me: where do you find motivation for your characters – and who are the characters that sell their motivation to you as a reader?

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

12 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Finding Motivation”

  1. Good post, Mary. I’ve written procedurals (with an ex-cop), something in between (a police secretary), and now cozies (a brewmaster!). You’re right that’s it’s sometimes easier to come up with motivation when the character is in law enforcement in some way, but it is possible in a cozy, too.

    Max (my character) decides to find out who killed her assistant because the death was ruled an accident, but she’s positive it was murder because of other things that have happened. The brew pub is her livelihood–she trained for a long time to become a brewmaster, so that’s her motivation. Her dad is the homicide detective, so I still get to throw a tiny bit of procedural stuff in (TINY being the operative word here, lol). I have to keep reminding myself not to overdo it. Cozies are read more for the characters and the “world” the author created than for the crime itself.

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  2. Great post, Mary! You’ve hit upon an area I’m currently struggling with and given me some new insight. I, too, struggle with motivation for an amateur sleuth (Joyce, I love your comment! Also helpful.). But writing police procedural seems daunting, so I really appreciated you sharing your story.

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  3. Joyce, that motivation I could buy. Livelihood on the line. I just never hit on it for myself – or found the right niche for my amateur, I guess. I think you’re right – cozies are about characters, but I think everything is made better with good characters. Yeah, I have to get the details right, but if the characters are flat, the details won’t matter.

    Pam, police procedural is a little daunting. And I very much wanted to avoid it because of that and nearly cried when I found I’d stumbled into it. But now that I’ve read some books, taken a Citizen’s Police Academy, read Lee Lofland’s blog (I’m taking his Writers’ Police Academy in the fall), and talked to some cops, it’s not as scary any more. And I really do love the sub-genre.

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  4. Mary, that’s all exciting to hear. I was actually supposed to attend Lee’s Academy this fall, but I have to withdraw (the timing just isn’t right for this year). I’m looking forward to next year, though! And we do have a local Citizen’s Police Academy that I’ve been considering, so now I’m motivated to sign up. Thanks!

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  5. Mary, I loved your description of your reaction to the workshop critique. Haven’t we all been there? Wanting to just throw in the towel? We love writing and critiques can sting, but they can also propel us to the next level. You made the leap.
    Character motivation is important and sometimes a bit elusive.

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  6. Theresa, so true. I was at a book event recently talking to a writer who said, “Sometimes people are just not ready to hear what has to be said. They either get the space they need and come to hear it, or they don’t.” I totally agree.

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  7. Mary, I just finished the draft of a book that centers around my series homicide detective, though the book is cozy. I found I really got to know him–his backstory and his motivations–and I liked him even more than I did before this book. That journey led me to a new and offbeat idea for him for an upcoming book, and completely stimulated my creative juices in a way I didn’t expect. The motivation question is a biggie, but when you meditate on it, you discover good things.

    I know other authors who interview their characters to discover motivation, and sometimes learn the person they think committed the crime didn’t have enough motivation to do so! I’m sure that leads to a great surprise ending.

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  8. Absolutely! Yes, it’s an extra challenge to find motivation for an amateur sleuth. I usually spend a lot of time with the backstory, probing for this, and often write several short stories within the backstory, getting to know the character better.

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  9. Great post. Character motivation is a huge story motivator, and so hard to explain. I write amateur sleuths, but each has a huge stake in solving the crime at hand. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find it, but I’ve got a bunch of under the bed books where I couldn’t identify the motivation for the character – Maybe someday, I’ll revisit them.

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  10. Diane. I did the “interview your character” thing. That was the final nail in the coffin – my character really DIDN’T have motivation! LOL Guess it saved me a lot of heartache in the long term; I moved on to other projects. I’m glad something works for you (and very cool about the detective).

    Sue, I know other people who do that – they write out the backstory for characters in little snippets that may never find their way into a manuscript, but help with understanding motivation a lot. Anything that helps is good, right?

    Kait, yes, sometimes you have to go deep – deeper than i went apparently (or maybe the motivation really just wasn’t good enough and I didn’t have the energy to find it). Go back to those books! I’ve got the same “maybe someday” ideas.

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  11. Great post, Mary! I admittedly have used protagonists who would want to investigate a crime (cops and reporters), that said you’re so right on about needing to know what motivates your characters outside of the crime world. Because they are people too. Adding those layers of who they are always makes a story for me. If it’s missing, either in my own writing or in reading, it’s like a giant neon sign saying DO MORE, THIS IS A PERSON. Or at least that’s how it looks in my head.

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