Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Every Character Needs Motivation

One of my Abingdon authors and I had a great discussion about motivation for one of her book's characters . . . a dog. In the first chapter, the dog, who is in the arms of its owner, bites her friend on the face. The incident springs out of nowhere.

I asked, "But what was the dog's motivation?" Am I starting to sound like Marlon Brando? A little perhaps. Like method acting, characters must have a compelling motivation for action, and if not, readers are left with little question marks over their heads. Not an attractive look.

There is a misconception in writing land that characters can only be people. Not so. Ask any fantasy writer. Giant worms make compelling characters. Characters can be objects or animals or even weather. Anyone ever see the 1956 movie The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn? Great flick! I highly recommend renting it. The hot, dry, dusty weather is a character that longs for rain.

Back to the dog. My point was that a normal, sane dog who has met the owner's friend numerous times doesn't just haul off and bite her on the face for no good reason. Of course, you need to be a dog lover to understand that. Dogs only bite if they feel threatened or if their brains are wired wrong. This was not an insane, mistreated dog.

So editor and author discussed the dog's motivation at length. Can you imagine someone listening to that conversation on the other side of the cubie wall? I have a great job! I also have a discreet suite mate, and we always pretend that we never listen to one another's calls.

The next time one of your characters steps up on the toilet and looks out the tiny high window at a neighbor's house, she should have a history and motivation for spying on the guy next door. Did he drag a dead body across her front lawn? Does he leave bloody axes lying around the garage? And why stand on the toilet? Isn't there a better vantage point? Yes, it's funny for someone to stand on the toilet, but construct a reasonable explanation for her behavior.

The next time you invent a character, ask what that character wants. No dog bites a woman on the face unless it's a sociopath. And that, my friends, could be the subject of several blogs. Watched any Criminal Minds episodes lately?


  1. Ahaa! Great point here. I have a very grumpy cat in one of my books, Miss Priss. She jumps on the hero at one point. Maybe I need to make her motivation a bit clearer for the part. *grin*

  2. I agree that every character must have a motivation to do whatever he does. I don't, however, think it necessary to inform the reader of all motivations. That will just give us a lot of backstory. Not informing the reader of the motivation is one of the means by which we're able to raise questions in the reader's mind. But that motivation helps define other actions the character will take. By piecing these actions together, the reader can discover the motivation for himself.

  3. It may take me a week or two to get that line out of my head: "What is the dog's motivation?" But you make an excellent pointt, Barbara, as you always do. Thanks.

  4. I always give my MCs motivation and even my important secondary characters. However, after reading this helpful post, I realize I don't pay as much attention as I should to incidental character's the character who only has one quick scene, or animals! Thanks for sharing the wisdom!

  5. Excellent points, Barbara. And yet when my 5th grade teacher asked me what possessed goody-two-shoes me to stand on the toilet in the girls' bathroom and try to look over the stall, I had no good answer. =) Perhaps for a 10-year-old, sufficient motivation is "I wanted to see if I was tall enough to see over it." LOL.

  6. Interesting post, Barbara. I'm sure we will have this conversation about animals, weather, and the river (Potomac) when I turn in my manuscript.

    I've been at a place in 'Before the Scarlet Dawn' where a blizzard hammers River Run. I drew upon my own experience from last February when those two storms barreled down on the east coast, but I had to get into an 18th century mindset. Can you imaging living through a blizzard in 1778? We think we have it so hard.

    I remember laying in bed the night of the second storm listening to it roar outside my window. The wind was constant, shoving and pushing against the walls of the house. This storm was unlike any blizzard I experienced. It seemed to have a life of its own...a monster possessed with rage coming down on us with such force that it was frightening.

    So in the novel, I guess I can say the weather becomes a character in the story.

    What if we included in our proposals storms and animals in our list of characters? That might be pretty interesting to do, and give or agents and editors a deeper view into the story. We endeavor to 'flesh out' our characters. Wouldn't that be a way of 'fleshing out the story'?

  7. So Barbara, when are you writing that book!

  8. Your example reminded me of a very good-natured dog we had. I worked at home, and Molly knew my clients well. Usually ran up to greet them at the door and ushered them down the steps to my office in the basement, so I thought nothing about it the day I heard a knock and shouted, "Come in. It's open." Molly accompanied my guest down the steps as usual, then jumped up and bit him in the forehead. (The man was over 6' tall. Quite a shock!)

    What was different? Molly had a new litter of puppies in our basement mudroom and apparently thought this "outsider" was suddenly too close for comfort.

    Thanks for a great object lesson!

  9. Jessica, cats can just have a bad hair day. LOL I can say that because we had two cats, a brother and sister named George and Gracie, for their whole lives. Sometimes a cat is just grumpy, or you didn't snap to when it called for dinner.

    And Timothy, your point is well taken. I agree that you don't want to load up your novel with a lot of backstory and narrative. So one of my first questions was whether the dog and its bite would play a central role in the book. Turns out the dog is a constant secondary (okay tertiary) character and makes the protagonist want a puppy. So the dog biting her on the face didn't make sense. The author rewrote the scene, and it strengthened the protagonist's character.

    And Roseanna, the only motivation a 5th-grade girl needs is wanting to know what's on the other side of the wall. :)

    I remember those blizzards, Rita, and how your son was traveling in one. Weather can make a great protagonist.

    And why didn't I think of puppies, Lynn? If I were a female dog, I'd be a little skittish, too, that some giant would crush my babies. LOL

    Thanks everyone for your comments and stories. Great fun!

  10. Awwww about your kitties! I had a brother and sister too. Pretty Boy was so cuddly but Pretty Girl could be standoffish.
    Love cats!

  11. I am laughing hysterically inside!! A friend just sent me the link to Karen Spears Zacharias's blog where she writes about how her Beagle almost bit off her nose! I know it must have been painful, but I can't help but laugh. Her story coincides so well with today's blog. Now, what I'd like to know, is what motivated Poe the Beagle to do such a thing? LOL

  12. I love this, dogs with motivations! You know, it soooo makes sense when you explain it this way. With every story I write, I learn more and more about the progression of the book due to the characters motivations. I learn more and more how every scene and every chapter needs to be put to good use by adding reason to a character's actions. I haven't written about any animals with interesting motives yet, but there's a time for everything :)

  13. Barbara, this is a great lesson. It's funny that you mentioned theatre and actors' motivation. In February I did a two-part interview on my blog about theatre and fiction from two actors' POV and also, the one is a director, so we got a twofer! Drop by and have a read, it's in the archived section under, February 9th and Feb. 13th.I hope you enjoy the interviews as much as I did. They offered a lot of info on creating deeper characters and how an actor uses all they can to develop the character.

  14. Great post Barbara.

    Yes. Motivation hits it stride during the writing process. Even well drawn out ahead of time, characters can seem a bit contrived at first. We drag our paper people through scenes, pasting them on the pages of the book. Then there is finally that moment when one of them stands up, puts their arms on their waist and speaks defiantly. "You have no idea who I am. I would never say that."

    The character is alive.

  15. I would have loved that conversation. Now I don't feel so crazy. Thanks.

  16. LOL! I also would have loved to hear that conversation about the dog's motivation. Seriously, only writers and editors could understand.

  17. Horses can have motivation, too.
    And what about how dogs will whine and cats will hide when an earthquake is about to strike. That makes me think of the elephants in Indonesia - right before the tsunami they headed inland.

  18. Just discovered your blog, Barbara, and I'm loving it already. I'm looking following your future entries. My motivation? Learning more from a first-class editor so I can be a first-class agent! ;)

  19. What a great conversation we've had! You've all added such great insights, and that's my goal for this blog--that it become a two-way conversation.

    Linda, I almost took acting lessons so that I could understand characters better. I'll stop by your blog. :)

    Michael, don't you just love it when characters finally speak up for themselves? They suddenly come alive. It's a magical moment.

    And Rita, if anyone had motivation to move inland, it was those elephants. Wish people were that tuned in.

    Thanks, everyone for participating!