Character Motivation…

Sorry for the recent radio…er, blog silence. Family/life changes happening and being resolved…it takes a lot out of a writer, I tell ya.

But then again, I guess the frustrations and insanity of life can be viewed in a positive light and applied to our writing techniques. After all, one of the major crises in my WIP comes from an actual life event so…you know. When life gives you lemons,  write a recipe for lemonade.

So onto our topic of discussion: Character Motivation.

When I cook, I usually start whatever I’m doing with butter. Sauteing onions or vegetables: start with butter. Making a roux for a sauce or soup: start with butter. Roasting poultry: rub the skin with butter. My point? Lots of butter. The metaphor? Butter = Motivation.

You see, character motivation…the reasons your character does what he or she does…is an essential building block for most everything else in your writing. From character flaws to the overall plot, your specific character’s motivation should be the driving force behind it all.

Let’s look at an example. Katniss Everdeen (obviously I’ve been reading The Hunger Games, but so has everyone else, so I feel it’s a safe example) has a simple motivation that ties nearly everything she does together: She wants to save her sister, Prim. The reason she illegally hunts with Gale: to feed Prim. The reason she volunteers for The Hunger Games: to save Prim. The reason she fights so hard to stay alive: to spare Prim from seeing her televised death. Her motivation for just about everything is the love she has for her sister. That right there is some good, fatty butter. Something everyone can relate to and that makes you feel all happy inside.

However, on the flip side, there is margarine. “Fake” butter. Butter substitute. Cheap, vegetable oil spread. This icky goop might be able to fool some people, but don’t underestimate your audience. A common reason readers have problems with certain characters is because they don’t understand their motivation. If your MC has a flimsy motivation (like he or she is just a good person, or he or she is “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with”  a vampire, etc), it’s like you’re starting your recipe off with margarine. It’s cheap and doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth.

So how do you present motivation without “info dumping”? I feel like the best way to do this is to develop good motivations. Once you have a firm grasp on your character motivation, you can’t just plop it in the first chapter*** and forget about it. Here are a few ways to thread your strong character motivation throughout your story:

1. Try and incorporate the motivation with references of the emotional state of your character. When he or she is having a “moment,” why not reflect on the motivation? When Katniss was feeling the most desperation, she would often think of Prim and how she needed to get back home to reassure her and take care of her. This way, the motivation is constantly being brought to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

2. Develop a background to the motivation. A strong motivation oftentimes isn’t sporadically brought on. Hopefully the motivation you’re using is something that is and has been part of your character long before we as readers meet him or her on the page. Not some lustful romance that recently blossomed, but rather a character trait that has been part of your MC’s design from the beginning.

3. Reveal the motivation through your MC’s interactions with other characters. Character interaction is a great way to incorporate so many things…it’s not just a page filler or a way to include conversation. Using character interaction, you might even be able to get away with bluntly stating your character motivation. A friend might question your MC and you, as the author, are allowed to have your MC state exactly why he/she is doing what he/she is doing. Genius, no?

So…oh, yeah. That “first chapter***” business. Though I don’t recommend just spelling out your character motivation on the first page and not bringing it up ever again, I DO recommend STRONGLY that your character motivation be established at least by the end of the first chapter.

So there we have it. Character motivation. If it’s strong, relevant, and spread throughout your work, it acts as the perfect base for everything else to stand upon. But beware of using flimsy motivations, as most readers will see right through them and will take serious issues with your character and the whole driving force behind his or her actions.

Oh, and use butter, not margarine.

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