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?