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…


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:


  • 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.


  • 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.


Self-editing – what did I learn?

Self-editing – will it take forever?
Short answer = a lot! When my husband first suggested that I sign up for this self-editing course, I wasn’t sure. Forever stubborn, I ummed and aahed, said maybe the September running would be better, that I wanted to see how well I could self-edit before turning to others for help. But how glad I am that he persevered and my curiosity got the better of me! So why was the course useful? What EXACTLY did I learn?

I have skipped a lot of blog posts recently, which makes me feel a bit like a naughty child late with her homework (*flashback to GCSE year*). You can blame the course for that though. I wanted to get the most I could from it (I mean, I paid perfectly good money – these things don’t come for free, right?) and that meant spending time and energy, both creative and analytical. Now the course is over, I need to continue with self-editing proper, which is very scary but also exciting, and I aim to post on here more frequently again. First up, I thought I would share with you what I have learnt from the course, both as a reminder to myself and in case anybody is thinking of doing anything similar in future.

But there are many self-editing courses out there…

So why did I choose this self-editing course?

  • It was online and flexible – people are great, but only when I’m in the mood for them (forgive me, I’m an introvert). This course took place in a private online forum, and the weekly exercises could be done whenever you had the desire and inclination. A lot of the value came from the feedback discussions that we all chipped in to, and you could add as little or as much to these as you were able.
  • The course leaders were both published authors with extensive experience in editorial input / feedback / and, most, importantly, writing – I loved getting advice from somebody who has seen the whole book process through from start to finish, and emerged successful on the other side.

Now for the important question…

What did I learn on my self-editing course?

  1. Giving constructive criticism is still no easier to me – although I am getting better at constructively criticising in itself, I just need to be less afraid of speaking my opinion out loud.
  2. And I am getting better at receiving it – it is very daunting to put a piece of your writing out there, knowing not everyone will think it’s brilliant, but you get used to it, and the negative feedback makes the positive feedback all the sweeter.
  3. You can’t please everyone, so just please yourself – one thing I noticed was that one person might think an idea of yours is the best thing since sourdough bread, and another might feel pretty meh about it. So what do YOU think? That’s what really matters, and, in my case, other people’s opinions of my work usually served to confirm that I already knew there was a problem, or that I wouldn’t be willing to change it unless on pain of death.
  4. I was already on the right track with my editing before I started the course – I had started a chapter-by-chapter summary with notes around what the reader should learn and how the chapter could be changed to make it even better. I am going to carry on with this as a first step. If nothing else, the necessary skim-reading is a great reminder of what has actually happened in my book so far (you’d be surprised how many of the details you forget, even when they came from your own mind in the first place).
  5. The editing process is LITERALLY (okay, maybe not literally) going to take forever – please don’t laugh, but I was somehow under the highly misguided illusion that it would only take me a month or so to edit my book. Not because I think I am super-brilliant at editing, rather the opposite. I didn’t have confidence in myself to recognise and react to potential issues in my story before the course, and now I do. We learnt how to edit effectively by working on small chunks (around 200 words) of our own manuscripts, and so I now need to multiply the effort involved in each week’s exercise by about 400. See? Forever.
  6. I have a few minor plot issues to clear up, e.g. an unfinished subplot here or an unclear character goal there – this is most likely because my view of the story changed as I was writing it (pesky story), and should hopefully be simple to fix.
  7. Characters with contradictory traits are fine (even desirable) but you need to make it convincing – for example, one of my protagonists is simultaneously scornful and fearful of the gods. A few of my coursemates queried this, but I feel it is a very important aspect of her character that explains a lot about her behaviour. I just need to get this across in the book. After all, readers aren’t mind readers – clarity is everything.
  8. I am still vindicated (for now) in my decision to attempt a complex plot / story structure for my first book – my worry was that readers wouldn’t understand the ending, but my coursemates seemed to. A few of them told me the non-linear, multiple timeline, multiple point-of-view story structure intrigued them and so I am hoping other readers feel the same.
  9. It is good to leap out of your comfort zone occasionally – I mostly write in third person, and I thought I was doing a good job of conveying characters’ thoughts and feelings UNTIL I tried writing the same passage in first person. It was a revelation and made me realise there is so much more I can do. So I’m going to vary my practise exercises a lot more from now on – write in third person past, first person present, why not even second person future?! (Now that would be a weird read…)
  10. One of the most common pieces of feedback I gave to others (e.g. if they asked whether enough happens in their book) was that I think it’s okay if big things don’t happen, as long as what does happen seems big to your characters. I think this is true – what matters is what the character feels. It doesn’t matter if you, as the reader, couldn’t care less about the fate of the green tree frog – if green tree frogs are the most important thing in the character’s life, and that is properly conveyed, then you will care when they become extinct and the character is left devastated.
  11. The feedback I received confirmed my belief that the beginning of my book will have to be more closely edited – the comments given on my writing in later extracts and from freshly written pieces were generally more encouraging. This is not a surprise as, when I started my book, it was my first piece of creative writing in a very long time.
  12. Using your phone to post in online forums while in the bath is going to lead to steam-induced typos and RSI at best, and a drowned phone at worst (luckily, only the former happened in my case, but the latter was oh so possible).

So now all that remains is for me to put everything I have learnt into practise. I will be very interested to see if my shiny new knowledge of self-editing will influence the way I write my next book from the very beginning, but that’s a question for another time. Right now, I have a book to edit, and, like I said, it’s going to take forever…