Self-editing fiction: character motivation

Character motivation
Where physics meets fiction

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sir Isaac Newton probably (okay, definitely) wasn’t talking about character motivation in fiction when he formulated his third law of motion but he might as well have been. So what is character motivation and why is it important? What can a 17th century physicist tell us about good storytelling? And how have I applied this to my self-editing?

Character motivation – what is it?

Character drives plot, and plot changes character. I recently posted on the symbiotic relationship the two share – when Character A feels elated, he will carry out Action X, which will make Character B angry and disposed to take Action Y, which will cause Character A immense disappointment, and so on and so forth.

But why did character A feel elated in the first place? What made him think Action X was the right thing to do? Did he not care about the effect Action X had on Character B? Why / why not? What is their relationship like? What does Character A plan to do next?

Essentially, character motivation encompasses anything and everything that makes a character think or act in a certain way. For example:

  • History and upbringing
  • Personality
  • Feelings towards others
  • Wants and needs

So why should a writer care about the list above?

Character motivation – why is it important?

Think of the characters in a book you have read recently. You generally have a pretty good idea how the protagonist is feeling, right? Why they go where they go and do what they do? The protagonist’s wants and needs do (or at least should) shape the story, after all, and if the story is written from the protagonist’s viewpoint then they are usually pretty clear.

But what about the other characters – the antagonists and best friends and love interests? Do you have an inkling how they are feeling?

If the story is a well-crafted one, then you usually should. Understanding character motivation is important in the case of protagonists, antagonists and bit part-players alike. A nefarious villain might thwart our heroine’s burning ambition to become a champion darts player every step of the way, but if we never find out why then we aren’t likely to care very much. Is the villain jealous because she wants to be a darts champion herself? Does she think darts is an unladylike pursuit? Or does she simply have a childhood score to settle?

I mentioned in my blog post on villains that an antagonist should amount to more than just a list of actions and reactions strategically set to take the protagonist where we want them to go – an antagonist should simply be doing what is natural to him or her given their unique character motivation. This is true of all characters. After all, everybody thinks of themselves as the protagonist in their own story.

So where does Newton come into it?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

If every character acts based on their own unique character motivation, then every character has a stake in where the story goes. The ending the protagonist wants will NOT necessarily be the same as the ending wanted by the antagonist, or even the protagonist’s best friend. Essentially, each player is exerting a force on the story (pushing for his or her own happy ending), and the plot pans out based on the interaction of these forces.

Should only one character exert force on the story (i.e. their needs and wants are met entirely unopposed), then there isn’t really a story, is there? At least not one worthy of capturing our interest.

Differing character motivations = opposing forces = interesting story

So how have I used the Newton approach in my own self-editing?

Character motivation – a self-editing case study

In my previous blog post on self-editing, I mentioned that character and plot would be my next area of focus – so what have I done since then?

  • Firstly, I wanted to ensure each of my characters served a clear purpose in the story, i.e. that they were exerting their own force to shape the plot (especially so with characters featuring more prominently). I jotted down a list of their names and respective purposes. It turned out one or two didn’t really have a purpose (or at least one that couldn’t be covered by another character equally well) so these were axed. Most, however, I kept.
  • My initial intention was to conduct character interviews as a first step, but when I sat down at my desk, instinct told me to start elsewhere. With character motivation in mind, I decided to jot down the bare bones of each character’s story arc (e.g. brief backstory, then what they did and why at each point in the plot). I started with Sadie, my fortune-telling protagonist, and, for the most part, the decisions she made seemed believable in the context of the story and her character motivation. This isn’t surprising given the entire plot was formulated with Sadie as the focus.
  • Next, I moved onto secondary characters. This is where things became interesting and very, very useful. As with Sadie, characters’ decisions made sense in most cases. However, there were a few instances that made me think, “Hmmm that seems a little out of character. Wouldn’t Mollie actually react more like THIS?”. I went through a similar exercise for each character, identifying scenes and subplots where characters really weren’t exerting the force they rightfully should be on the story. With each character’s likely actions and reactions in mind, my brain started to form connections between story strands and it soon became clear why certain subplots weren’t working and how this could be rectified.
  • Viewing the story from the perspective of each character in turn was really the most useful task I have performed so far in writing Mamacona. I had previously found the idea of editing my plot very daunting (I mean, I came up with the damned thing – it’s perfect in my eyes, how can it possibly be improved?!) but what I needed to do in order to make the plot better suddenly seemed obvious following my bare-bones (or not so bare-bones in the end) character arcs.
  • Note that not everything mentioned in my character arcs has explicitly made it into the book. There were some things I just wanted to make sure I had clear in my own head (e.g. how strict a policy Sadie’s parents adopted to such matters as dressing for mealtimes, and exactly what made Fabbozzi the ringmaster want to open a circus in the first place). These things undoubtedly have a bearing, however small, on the character’s subsequent actions, but I am happy for the reader to form their own opinion as to why Fabbozzi so desperately wants to acquire a performing lion.

So what’s next for me?

I have considered character’s influence on plot. Next I will consider plot’s influence on character. Using some of the insights gleaned from the previous exercise (Sadie’s childhood dinnertimes and Fabbozzi’s lion), I will finally get around to my character interviews, and hopefully use these to further refine characters’ reactions to what is happening around them.

After that, I’ll be finished with plot / character and onto the nitty gritty of voice and psychic distance. I wonder if Albert Einstein has anything useful to say about those…


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