What motivates your character?

I know it’s one thing to stay inside when the heat index tops 100 degrees, but on a balmy spring day the reasoning would be different. It changes if your character suddenly loses air conditioning or a threatening snowstorm hovers on the horizon.

First you have to make certain you know the motivation not just of the main character but also those around her. It’s fine if you know that Jane is a runner through any kind of weather, but something about her might also tell you she’s sedentary the rest of the time. What if she also hates running, but does it because her sister goaded her into a daily race as a kid that she’s still trying to win?

That doesn’t just tell you about Jane but also gives information about her sister. Who’s the girl who prodded Jane to run for so long that it became an ingrained habit? What makes her run?

Maybe you don’t want to figure out the tangled web of Jane’s past, but if her sister randomly shows up on Jane’s doorstep in Chapter 17 – it might be nice to have some idea who she is and what she’s doing there so it doesn’t completely contradict something from the previous parts of the story.

I know a lot of writers who like to ‘write by the seat of their pants’ or just discover it as they go. It works well for so many, but then you have to find the motivation later. Weaving it into a rewrite is definitely fair game.

Motivation just isn’t something that can be skipped. Characters behave irrationally. It makes sense once you know how their minds are working, but until we put those pieces together a reader only sees the irrationality. Some characters are supposed to be irrational and possibly lack the ability to be rational, but that, too, can be shown through other characters. Even an unreliable narrator gives clues that you can’t count on everything you see through her eyes.

Sometimes that motivation is lacking as the events come tumbling by. Yes, I see there are toads in your backyard, but why? What happened? Are you just watching their antics on the swing and down the slide? Where do they go when they’re done, and is this just a one-time thing, or are they special in your neck of the woods? I want to know if you call someone to get rid of them or if you decide toads are okay in your backyard so long as you don’t step on them. Why are you just sitting there watching the toads if they’re doing what they do every night anyway?

And tomorrow night’s backyard intruders might be spiders or pumas instead of toads, so I suppose we’ll ask them when we find animal telepaths. It doesn’t mean we can’t personify them a little and put something in there about the setting to explain why my backyard is so tempting and Dave’s yard across the way isn’t. Perhaps Dave’s backyard is actually blue AstroTurf and no animal sets foot in it unless there is no other choice.

Motivation is what takes the character in one direction instead of all the other options. Letting your readers see into his head, even if he doesn’t understand his actions yet, helps them get closer and get more invested in the story. Good luck on getting to know the next character that pops into your head. I love teasing the information out of mine.

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