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…


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?*


*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.

Villains: the good, the bad and the (very) ugly

what are villains
Is this a villain? Or is he the good guy? (Image –
When my group decided that we would perform an extract from King Lear for one of our A Level Drama pieces, I was adamant I wanted to play Goneril or Regan. Why? Goneril and Regan are two of the “mean” sisters, two of the play’s villains. I consider myself to be quite a pleasant person really, so I thought pretending not to be could be fun. Snarky comments, evil glares and a general sense of haughtiness.

Everyone loves a villain, from Hannibal Lecter to the pantomime variety. But why? What makes the worst villains the best, and are the good ones really so bad (if you see what I mean…)? Can a villain be something other than a person?

What is a villain?

Conventional wisdom has it that every story, whether film, play or novel, needs a villain. Villains cause problems, up the stakes for the protagonist and generally make things just that little bit more interesting. Villains can provide comic relief (think numerous lair-inhabiting Bond villains). Villains can inspire terror and dread, like Voldemort. Villains can be complicated and psychotic, neatly turned out and polite, or even a little bit like you or me.

So what do such varied villains have in common?

In a word, antagonism. An effective villain needs to “antagonise” the protagonist, to get in their way at every twist and turn. An effective villain tries to stop the protagonist from achieving what they set out to do over the course of the novel, whether that’s win the girl (or boy), kill the beast or bake that perfect Victoria sponge.

What about stories without a traditional sharp-fanged, gun-toting, evil-spewing villain?

This got me thinking about my own book, and I started to worry. What are the goals of Sadie and Umiña (my two main characters)? Who is trying to prevent them from achieving those goals? I had an answer to the first question, but not the second. I mean my book has characters of questionable morals, sure – Mama Izhi, Mollie the acrobat and Teddy the equestrian performer, just to name a few. None of these characters, however, are at the core of the story. Their antagonism of Sadie and Umiña is mostly the fodder of subplots.

But before you decide never to read my book on account of the lack of snarky comments and haughty stares (there are plenty, I promise), neither Sadie’s nor Umiña’s journey from beginning to end of book is entirely simple and unopposed. They are just a different type of journey, that’s all. In the case of each of my protagonists (particularly Sadie), her own mind is the villain she is battling, in the form of memories and unruly emotions and her general sense of injustice with life.

So no, to answer a question I posed above, I don’t believe a “villain” needs to be a person, although this does depend on a large extent to the genre in which you are writing. Extremely plot-driven narratives (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) will generally feature a story arc with a tangible objective and a villain of a more traditional vein. Extremely character-driven narratives (like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) tend to focus on the protagonist’s transformation, whether emotional or otherwise. Of course, a large number of books fall somewhere between the two extremes, with protagonists battling both inner and outer demons simultaneously.

This leads me, then, to conclude that conflict or tension, not villainy, is the key to a story, whether that conflict is with someone else, yourself or the world at large.

But let’s suppose a villain IS a person. What makes them a good one?

Attributes of a villain

  1. First and foremost, and again, conflict is the key. It doesn’t really matter whether your villain is good or bad, just that they are “other”. I mean your protagonist might be the bad guy right? Which means their antagonist might be the good guy. As long as they are striving for opposing ideals, then it’s all good. After all, nobody thinks they are the villain in their own story, not even Voldemort. The “villain” might actually be somebody the protagonist is very fond of, a spouse or parent for example.
  2. A villain is more believable as a character if we understand where they are coming from, and what motivates them to be such a villainous villain. It might not even hurt if we empathise with them a little (see below). When pulling together Mama Izhi’s character profile, I spent just as long on it as Sadie’s or Umina’s. It lists her hopes, dreams and deepest, darkest past, and, to read it, you probably wouldn’t even know she was the villain. A villain should amount to more than just a list of actions and reactions. A villain should just be doing what is natural to him or her given their background – it’s the reader’s closer relationship to the protagonist that makes the actions of the villain seem villainous.
  3. It might just be me, but I really like morally ambiguous characters. I find it fascinating when you can’t quite decide whether the guy you are rooting for is the good guy or the bad guy. Wanting Cersei Lannister or Draco Malfoy to succeed, even if in some small way, can cause you to question your own morality. This is why I like villains with a little bit of light in them, whether it’s a love for their children or a moment of compassion for their adversary. A glimpse of humanity or the mundane can also makes them seem more threatening sometimes. Would Hannibal Lecter be quite as frightening if there was no chance he could ever be the guy next to you in Majestic, scanning the label of an Italian red?
  4. Having said all of the above, the opposite sometimes holds true. In certain stories, particularly those of a supernatural bent, the unknown is what we fear. I can name countless occasions (most often in films but in books too) where the SCARY UNKNOWN THING stopped being frightening as soon as I found out what it was. I believe though, that in stories like this, the fear itself is the source of tension, not the villain. Getting to know the villain and his/her/its motivations is no longer necessary, but convincingly written fear and its implications for the protagonist are now required.

(All of the above holds true for a character battling an inner demon too – we need to understand WHY they are feeling a certain way, what their deepest desires and dreads are, and how it affects their life right now.)

So, are the worst villains really the best?

In short, an effective “villain” might be evil or lovely, short or tall. They might like chianti or they might have a penchant for cognac. They might not even be a person, but an emotion, say, or traumatic event. It doesn’t really matter as long as they are fully developed and believable, and they do their job, which is to provide a source of tension or conflict for the protagonist.

After all, nobody wants to read a story about a woman who goes out for a walk on a lovely, sunny day, doesn’t encounter a rabid dog or the man of her dreams, thinks happy thoughts about how idyllic her life is, and then goes home for tea and cake. The end.