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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Character, Part II…

Since my friend and writing buddy, Karen made a little post all about me and my little blog, I figured it was time to finish up that promised “Part II” all about character and how to make your MC’s more likable. (And if you haven’t read “Part I,” go do that. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

So now that we’ve discussed how to make your character more sympathetic, it’s time to move onto the part we as writers occasionally have a difficult time with: Flaws and Handicaps. You see, we spend all of this time creating this awesome character in our minds…someone who has talent, potential, smarts…the list goes on. But we hesitate to make them flawed. Maybe it’s because we want our audience to like our character. Maybe it’s because their journey through the book will present enough challenges in itself, so why make it more difficult?

Excuses, excuses. If you want your character to be believable, you HAVE to give them flaws and handicaps. I’m sorry, but that’s the cold, hard truth.

So, let’s start with flaws. Three main categories (did you know categories was spelled with an “e”? I didn’t. Guess that’s a minor character flaw on my part…my spelling.) are minor, major, and tragic.

Minor character flaws are usually things that simply make your character more human, more accessible. Things like nail biting, hair twirling, etc. that don’t necessarily affect the character or the story to an extreme…but rather make your character who he or she is.

Major character flaws are, well, major. They are so major that they typically affect the outcome of the story. Pride, self-doubt, addictions, extreme fears or phobias…you get the idea.

Then we have the classic “tragic flaw,” which is usually the cause of a character’s ultimate demise. Self-fulfilling prophecies are perhaps my favorite of these, but really any of the classic Greek tragedies involve a tragic flaw. Personally, I think this is a bit of a downer for YA fiction…but what do I know? I’m not published. Yet.

So there we have it…Flaws. I also mentioned Handicaps. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, writing world, let me try and explain. Flaws are basic. Everyone has them. Handicaps, on the other hand, are a bit more pressing. They literally impair your character from doing what they need to do.

I feel that you can give any character a flaw. However, your main character should also have a handicap. Something that will make them bad at what he or she needs to accomplish. Why? Well, first, to give your character an added depth of conflict. Second, to develop a character arc…something that will allow growth and change.

So. (Did I mention I use the word “so” excessively?) There it is. My two cents on the other side of character development…flaws and handicaps. If you think maybe your MC is lacking depth, give it a shot. See what happens. I’d like to think it worked out well for one of my Crit Group buddies whose name rhymes with Faren and a certain character whose name may or may not rhyme with Boda…

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Character, Part I…

So I suppose my first writing-centered blog post should be something I feel I have a pretty good grasp on. I guess that would be “voice.” If there is one thing I get as consistent praise from my writing, it’s the voice. Spot on. Nearly every time. But honestly, I can’t tell you how that happens. I haven’t analyzed it well enough yet. So let’s visit something I have learned. Character.

You can pretty much make a continuum diagram about anything when it comes to writing. Character is no exception. A good example of these two extremes can be found in “The Lord of the Rings.” First we have Aragorn. Our Superman. Tall, dark, handsome. Rightful King. Skilled healer. Mighty warrior. Unmatched commander. Even had the foresight of the Dúnedain. Sure there was the occasional tinge of self-doubt and even pride, but he pretty much kicked butt all around. Then we have Frodo. Simple, small, unimportant, and I daresay, dorky. An “Everyman.” The underdog. The character everyone roots for because he is so much like, well, everyone.

While I would love to continue a character analysis, I’m just providing you with some examples. There is nothing wrong with having a Superman or an Everyman as your character. Obviously, they can be successful. However, from my reading (and limited writing) experience, I have to say that the best, strongest, and most relatable characters fall somewhere around the center.

Uh-huh. So how do you build that well-balanced character, Sarah?

Well, writing world, I will tell you.

Step one: Make your character likable. You need to create sympathy for your character from the audience.

  • Make your MC good at something.
  • Give your MC friends.
  • Make your MC nice.
  • Make your MC rational.
  • Instill personal and internal conflict.
  • Make your character proactive.

“Good at something.” Give your character a talent. Something small and simple that makes them just the slightest bit special. We all have something we’re good at. Don’t short-change your character.

“Friends.” It sounds silly, but your MC needs friends. If nothing else, they need someone to talk them up and point out their good and likable qualities. This also leads into my next point of making your MC nice. Nice people have friends. It kind of goes hand-in-hand.

“Nice.” When I took a class from Brandon Sanderson on this very topic, he discussed how important it was to make your character nice. It’s hard to like someone who is not so nice. Duh. But this is where “show don’t tell” can get a little sticky. Brandon suggested that you give your MC a few opportunities to “pet a puppy.” Put them in a simple situation where, through simple actions, they come off as a genuinely nice person. Pet the puppy, don’t kick the puppy.

“Rational.” This is one I am kind of struggling with right now. One of my characters is motivated to do things simply because I need her to move the plot along. It’s not working. Your readers have to understand your character’s motives and rationale. Otherwise, it’s just not believable.

“Conflict.” As a writer, you should know that conflict is the glue that holds character, plot, and setting together in a well-written novel. But the conflict I’m talking about here is personal and internal conflict. Hopefully you have already figured out you main source of conflict in your WIP, but feel free to dabble with other kinds of internal conflict. Self-doubt, pride, moral conflict…we’ve all dealt with it. Your characters should, too.

“Proactive.” Not the facewash. Unless one of your character’s flaws is acne. But that’s for Part II. No, you need to make your character proactive. Don’t let him or her just sit around and whine (I’m looking at you, Bella Swan.) Have your character be goal-driven and DO something about it.

Now I’m not saying every well-written character has to fit this profile in order to be well-written. In fact, if your character arc is based on the growth and development of one or more of these characteristics, awesome. But if you feel like maybe your MC isn’t as strong or as likable as he or she could be, take a good look at them. See if he or she could use a few more moments to shine and become friends with your audience before you bring in the conflict that will shatter their world…

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Well, here goes my writing blog…

First thing’s first. Introductions.

I’m Sarah. Nice to meet you, writing world.

I guess the best way to introduce myself is to explain my blog title. Sure I thought of quirky, play-on-words types of names like “Typing With My Toes,” but that was already taken by Karen. Or “Jest Kept Secret,” but that was taken by Jess…well, and it’s a play on words having to do with her name and not mine…but whatever. So onto my title.

Wife. I have been married  to the most wonderful, loving, supportive husband for almost 5 years. I wouldn’t be half of what I am today without him, so the title of “Wife” I will gladly place first.

Mother. Yep. I have two darling children. I adore them. I like to think they adore me. It’s a beautiful relationship. (Side note: I have been interrupted twice three times during this post for potty breaks, more juice, and comforting after a bonk on the head. And it is AFTER bedtime.)

Chef. I love cooking. And I’m good at it. Good enough, in fact, that I am currently employed as a sous chef. It’s helping to feed my writing habit and pay the bills. And while I’m eagerly anticipating the day I get to quit my day job and return home to be with my kids full-time (well, and write full-time, too), that’s where I’m at.

Writer. Well, trying to be at least. I graduated from Brigham Young University last April with my BA in English. And while taking some classes to fulfill part of my English requirement, I stumbled into a creative writing class taught by Carol Lynch Williams and fell in love. I proceeded to take a few more classes from Brandon Sanderson and even kept up with the BEST critique group a girl could ask for.

So There is that. Welcome to my writing journey.

So that’s me. A few more things about this blog, just to give you a heads-up. I start WAY too many sentences with “So.” I also use an abundance of ellipses. You know… “…”. Those. I also make no promises to update regularly, but I do vow to make just about every post something of use. Whether it’s something I’m currently hashing through with my WIP, epiphanies, or simply something taken from old creative writing class notes, I hope to help and inspire the writing world that happens to be tuning in.

Also, giveaways. I love me a good giveaway. I will probably be announcing one soon-ish just to grab some followers right off the bat. But that is for another post, another day.

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