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…

-Kirsty

Self editing my book – the chapter summary

Chapter summary
What my self-editing roadmap felt like…
I finished the first draft of my book in April. Six gruelling months later, I have finally completed the first task on my self-editing to-do list. The chapter summary. But what exactly is it? And why on earth did it take so long? Were all those hours of effort worthwhile?

What is a chapter summary?

When I tell people it has taken me six months to write my chapter summary, they look a little confused. And unimpressed. Who can blame them? I mean surely a chapter summary is just a few lines about what happens in each chapter. A few lines x 29 chapters can’t possibly equate to months and months of work, can it? Well no, probably not. The truth is chapter summary is probably a bit of a misnomer in my case.

What I have put together is more like a self-editing roadmap. Here is a photo of a sample page in all its messy glory.

Chapter summary

There are three columns – one for each story arc (titled Inca, Circus and Victorian). Each chapter is summarised (in a different coloured pen no less) with annotations in the margins, and random story-related musings scribbled on post-it notes.

Within the columns, there is an entry for each chapter, split into two – what happens and what the reader learns. What happens is a little more akin to the classic chapter summary – it is exactly what it sounds like so I won’t explain further. What the reader learns is the bit where the months and months of effort comes in.

So what exactly is it? (I know, the suspense is killing you).

What the reader learns

If you have written, or are in the process of writing, a book, you will probably know exactly what I mean when I say the story always makes perfect sense in the safety of your own head. I mean, your own head is where it came from so how can it not? The characters, and their motivations and whims, are entirely a product of your own imagination, and so you don’t really question whether their actions would actually make sense to an impartial observer. You know they make sense, at least to you.

Character A carries out Action X because of Motivation Y so it should be pretty obvious to anybody really… except you have forgotten to mention Motivation Y anywhere in the book, so you are the only person who knows about it. This is where my chapter summary comes in. I wanted to read each chapter from the viewpoint of a reader with absolutely no knowledge of the characters or what the book is about.

This is an example of my notes on chapter one – “Umiña seems quite scornful of religion. The girls aren’t allowed to leave the temple enclosure – why not? Will we find out later? Umiña also seems quite scared of the gods – why, when she is scornful of religion?”.

The purpose of this exercise was two-fold. Firstly, to make sure the reader’s thoughts are encouraged to go in the direction I want them to and things that I want to be apparent are, in fact, apparent. Secondly, to note down points in the book where I don’t feel this is the case, or where there is some other kind of unintentional inconsistency that I will want to resolve.

So has the chapter summary served its purpose? Would I recommend this approach to somebody else?

The chapter summary – was it worth it?

Overall, yes, but I would probably do it slightly differently next time. Here is a comparison of the pros and cons:

Pros

  • The what the reader learns section really is a comprehensive compendium of anything and everything I will want to look at in the course of my self-editing proper. I have identified unintentional red herrings, characters acting very much out of character (I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, but will save the whys and wherefores for a future blog post on character), important events that go unexplained, and even a sub-plot that just peters out without any explanation. I didn’t deal with any of these issues as I found them, but have made notes reminding myself that I need to.
  • Despite all of the above, I am reassured that, for the most part at least, I am on the right track. The plot makes sense overall, the characters are suitably complex, and the reader’s thoughts are hopefully pretty much where I want them to be. If this wasn’t the case, I would have a lot more work to do in the next stage of self-editing, but at least I would be aware of it from the start.
  • I hoped that the what the reader learns element of the chapter summary would serve as a useful guide (a roadmap as I mentioned earlier) for the rest of my editing. I have only been at it for one day, but this seems to be the case so far. The chapter summary ended up throwing up a few plot uncertainties, e.g. a big jump from one event to another without much explanation in the way of character motivation. As part of Sadie (one of my protagonists)’s character profile, I have been looking at her motivation at each point in the story, and think I have successfully solved one of the plotting issues uncovered by the chapter summary.
  • The (somewhat shorter) what happens element will hopefully prove a useful precursor to the synopsis I will have to write as part of my agent submission package. I also plan to use it as the basis of a useful plotting exercise we covered on my self-editing course.
  • The summary is written matrix-style, so can be read in story-order or in chronological order (i.e. by story arc). I am planning to use this to check chapters in the book are in the best possible order they can be (and that the reader doesn’t learn something too early or too late in relation to the other arcs), but also to make sure that each story arc makes sense within itself.

Cons

  • I think you already know this one – it took a LONG time. Part of the reason for that was that it simply just isn’t the most exciting of tasks. If I had worked on it for 8 hours a day every day, it would have taken significantly less time, but I just don’t have the mental stamina to work on such a repetitive task day-in day-out. After just one day, I can already see the rest of my self-editing is likely to be a lot more mentally stimulating, and, therefore, a lot easier to work on consistently.
  • It was demoralising. It is an exercise specifically designed to spot problems, not provide solutions. That made me feel, at times, as though my book was just ALL WRONG. Again, after just one day, the second editing phase has been infinitely more satisfying and has left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling instead of a vaguely panicked one.
  • The above two points taken together mean that, if I’m being completely honest about it, the chapter summary has taken a lot of time for what might seem, at first, like relatively little gain. But I want to be thorough in my self-editing, and I really think (read: hope) that this approach will pay dividends in the longer term.
  • Sometimes, I found myself a little confused about what the what happens element was actually for. Should it strictly cover events in the narrowest sense of the word? Should it also cover important things the character (and, by extension, the reader) learns where these have a great bearing on the story? I don’t think I have been very consistent in this respect – flicking back through my notebook, the two elements started off as roughly equal for chapter one, finishing with the what happens element being about a quarter of the length of the what the reader learns section for the final chapter. Next time, I think I will just have the latter section and put together a separate chapter summary at a later stage.

So there you have it. It might have been painful to put together, but I’m glad I have a roadmap to follow for the remainder of my self-editing.

Will I still think it was a worthwhile endeavour when my book is finished and out in the ether waiting to meet agents? That remains to be seen. Would a similar approach work for another writer? Only the individual can be the judge of that. Either way, I would definitely recommend trying to view your work through the eyes of a previously-uninitiated reader. It just might help you realise that, in the absence of one key missing motivation, the tragically enigmatic street performer dreamt up in your head might be a nonsensically confusing con artist when recreated in somebody else’s.

-Kirsty

Plot or character: which comes first?

Plot character
Chicken and egg, or plot and character?
Chicken and egg, please move aside. I think this question is a lot more difficult to answer. Depending on genre, plot and / or character are both likely to be important elements of your tale. But which is more important? Which do you start with when you decide to embark upon the writing of a book?

These questions are in the forefront of my mind at the moment. Although I have already written the first draft, I am in the throes of the stage many people refer to as the most difficult – REwriting. My chapter summary is drawing to a close, and so I need to decide which element to look at next. I had originally assumed I would work through the weekly lessons we were taught on my self-editing course in the order we covered them, meaning plot would be next, followed by character. But I am beginning to rethink this approach.

What is plot? What is character?

Plot is, essentially, what happens in your story. The beginning, middle and ending, say. The key events that astound readers while moving your story forward (or backward, if that’s where you want to go). Characters, perhaps obviously, are the people (and sometimes things) who populate your story – their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, their deep, dark, secret pasts.

I alluded, in a previous blog post on villains, to the fact that the relative importance of plot and character will depend on the type of book you are writing. Some books (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) are driven more (but not solely) by plot, and others (such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) are driven more (but again, not solely) by character. Realistically, the majority of books do fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Either way, the two, unsurprisingly, interact very extensively. But how?

How do plot and character interact?

Even a thrilling, explosion-filled plot has the potential to fall flat if the characters are one-dimensional and you really don’t understand why they were in the thrilling, explosion-filled situation in the first place. By contrast, the most interesting, nuance-ridden character might have you falling asleep in the pages if nothing, well, changes for them, even if it’s just some sort of internal realisation. So it seems that, in most cases, both a strong plot and interesting characters are desirable.

So, assuming we need them both, do the events of the plot cause the character to make certain decisions and feel certain emotions? Or does the plot pan out in the specific way it does because a character has specific traits and preferences? In an ideal world, the two will feed off each other in an almost-never-ending symbiotic cycle. The heroine will decide to venture out on a dangerous mission because she is brave, but what does she do when the mission is unsuccessful? That depends on her personality – she might sulk and find an alternative pastime, or try again, or become horribly murderous. The arc of the plot will look very different in each case.

But even the most perfectly symbiotic storyline has to start somewhere. So which should you start with – plot or character?

I think it really depends on what ignited your spark of creativity in the first place – was it a key historical event you feel has been overlooked by novelists, or a vision of a man staring out of a window thinking of something unspeakably sad? If the plot pops into your head first, start there. If, instead, you find yourself creating characters out of nothing, then feel free to continue doing that.

In both cases, the important thing is to remain flexible. Allow the plot to evolve as you create characters to influence it, and the characters to pad themselves out as they react to the unfolding plot. If your plot needs to do a u-turn to accommodate the nefarious ways of a character you absolutely adore, then so be it. If you are dead set on a certain sequence of events that really wouldn’t happen to your protagonist, then you might need a new protagonist. Just don’t try to force a plot and character to co-exist if it doesn’t feel natural.

I really can’t recall where I read it (or I would post a link here) but something I found very useful was to consider whether your plot still makes sense if you remove the main characters. If so, then your characters aren’t sufficiently embedded in your plot (of course, this might not matter to you if you are writing a purely action-based sort of book…).

So how do you do this in practice?

Plot and character – a case study

My book started with a fortune teller from Victorian London (character), then the feeling of eeriness I wanted to create with the setting – when would a Victorian fortune teller feel out of place? I know, when her travelling circus takes her to the Peruvian Andes (plot). Why did she join a travelling circus in the first place? Perhaps she wanted to leave London because she had a troubled past, and the resulting turbulent emotions cause her to become obsessed with something or someone in Peru (character), which causes her to do something strange (plot)…

You can hopefully see how my plot and character slowly influenced each other bit by bit in the initial stages. Broadly, I had the basic outline of some characters and a plot in my mind before I started writing, and these refined themselves gradually, weaving new story arcs as I got to know my characters better. Eventually, the strands wove themselves into an ending, and I am now sitting here with a finished first draft.

Which leads me to one of my original questions – how am I going to approach the question of character and plot in the remainder of my self-editing?

Phase one (my chapter summary) has brought up some interesting questions. Is it possible for character A to think X about this but Y about that? Would character B realistically do Z? Clearly some of the questions involve both character and plot – if character B wouldn’t do Z, then Z would never happen, which would undoubtedly change the course of the plot, if only marginally.

So which to consider first?

When it comes to reading, I tend to favour a character-driven narrative. Characters and their quirks are what get me really interested in a book, and I’m no different when it comes to the writing of one. I care more about whether or not character B would, in fact, do Z or not, than about whether Z actually happens. Therefore, I think my next self-editing step is to carry out more in-depth character studies (interviews, profiles, etc.) based on what I have written and whether this corresponds with the vision of the characters I have in my head. I will then turn my attention to plot, using my (hopefully) new and improved knowledge of my characters to refine events I was uncertain about and weave together the few plot strands still stubbornly dangling loose.

Of course, somebody else in my situation might prefer to start with plot, and that’s absolutely fine. Chicken and egg, remember?*

-Kirsty

*For the record, I’m plumping for the egg. Reason? Presumably (and I’m not a biologist), the chicken evolved from a bird that was similar to a chicken but not quite a chicken. An egg has always been, well, an egg. “So what came first, the not-quite-chicken or the egg?”, I hear you ask. Well that question is a lot like the question of plot and character, i.e. a lot more difficult to answer.