Wednesday, April 27, 2011


My cable company really is out to get me. Not only did it take until yesterday to get the new Doctor Who OnDemand and I still don't know if they've fixed the Friday Night Lights situation, but my converter box went on the blink yesterday. I'd planned to watch Doctor Who when I got home from ballet, but couldn't do that without the box. I still had a cable signal when I bypassed the box, and I still had all the digital menus on the box. I just didn't get a TV picture or sound. After a chat with customer service this morning, I'll have to pick up a new box today and see if I can get it set up without the drama that the last box required (now I know the key questions to ask and the key words to use).

I've figured out why I snapped midway through the current chapter. I was approaching it the wrong way, going with funny when this is the scene that needs real tension and a sense of threat. I need to rethink the antagonist in this scene, since he's sort of the ultimate villain of the piece who makes all the previous villains look lame. I needed to step away from the book for a while to process this, so I cleaned out my refrigerator, destroying all my science projects, some of which may have achieved sentience, but since they didn't try to communicate with me, I threw them out.

So, now it's time for another writing post, and the topic for the week is motivation. In journalism terms, motivation is the "why" part of the "who, what, when, where, why and how" that are essential to every story. With a strong enough motivation, you can make a character do just about anything. A weak motivation will sap your story of all energy. The more extreme the actions you need your character to take, the stronger the motivation has to be.

How do you strengthen the motivation? One thing you can do is look at what drives it. Is there some deep, inner need the character is trying to fill? The stronger that need is, the more motivated the character will be. I think a good example of this is found in the movie While You Were Sleeping, in which the main character pretends to be the fiancee of a man in a coma so she can spend time -- including Christmas -- with his family. That's a pretty extreme, even crazy, thing to do, not something most people would even consider. But the movie sets up the situation by showing how utterly alone in the world she is. She lost her mother when she was young, then her father got sick and she's spent her adult years taking care of him, putting her own dreams on hold, and now he's dead, so she's left with nothing. She's working on Christmas because she has no family to be with. That establishes her as being deeply lonely and isolated, to the point where you could imagine that she'd be tempted by the invitation to spend Christmas with a big, loving family. The initial posing as the fiancee started as a misunderstanding that would have caused more problems if she tried to explain, and her plan was to just disappear, but when she made the decision to continue the deception, it was over the opportunity to be treated like part of a family.

Survival is another deep, primal need that can drive motivation. If a killer robot from the future, a non-sexy vampire or a serial killer is after you, you'll do just about anything to survive. You don't even need to give backstory on that motivation. When something scary is coming after the character, we'll believe in the need to survive. Money isn't really a primal need, but you can connect it to survival -- without money, it is hard to get by, and the more desperate the situation, the more someone is willing to do to get it. We're more likely to sympathize with characters who are desperate for money for someone else's sake -- it's iffy if the hero is stealing because he needs money, but we might accept it if he's stealing to feed his starving children.

You may need backstory to establish motivations like loneliness, fear of commitment or fear of needing someone else, but you don't want that backstory to provide a pat, simplistic reason. I've seen way too many books and TV movies about someone who hates Christmas and wants to destroy Christmas for others because of one bad thing that happened on Christmas in the past. You need to make readers believe that if that thing had happened to them, then they'd feel the same way. You don't want them to roll their eyes and say, "Oh, grow up and get over it, already."

Another way to strengthen motivation is to look at the consequences. Yes, the hero has a strong drive to go after this thing that he wants or to do these things, but what happens if he fails? You have a stronger motivation if the consequences are truly dire -- if he doesn't do this, then the world comes to an end, people he loves will die, the bad guys will win and enslave everyone, he'll lose everything he owns and the person he loves, etc. I once critiqued a manuscript in which the heroine had inherited a house from a relative she'd hated, and the terms of the will were that she had to live in it for a certain amount of time to inherit it. That meant she had to come back to the hometown she'd fled and face her past. I had to ask the author why she'd bother -- she didn't know she was going to inherit the house, so it wasn't like her life plans were built around it, she didn't want the house, she didn't need the money from selling it and was planning to sell the house and give the money to charity after she inherited it -- and the house would go to charity if she didn't inherit it. So why not just ignore the will and let the house go to charity? I didn't see any consequences to her not jumping through the hoops to inherit the house, which meant the motivation was weak. Either something really bad has to happen if the hero fails, or the hero has to have the hope of something really good that he desperately wants happening if he succeeds. If the hero can fail and say, "Ah, well, at least I tried. No harm done," you've got weak motivation. I'd have fixed this book by maybe having someone she hated more than her relative be in line to get the house if she didn't, or it was going to be sold to developers who would tear it down and build something she was morally opposed to if she didn't take the steps to inherit it. There needed to be some reason beyond "I might not inherit this house I didn't want if I don't do this thing that will be very unpleasant for me."

To strengthen the motivation further, make sure you remove all other options for achieving the goal. If readers can see the hero going through all sorts of torment to achieve his goal and think of several other, easier ways to do it, then that weakens the sense of motivation. We need to feel like he absolutely has to achieve this because the consequences of doing so are dire, and there is absolutely no easier or better way to do this. That's one reason that The Devil Wears Prada didn't work for me. The heroine's goal is to be a serious magazine journalist, and the story makes it sound like the only way she can achieve this is to be an assistant to an evil fashion magazine editor, who tortures her and ruins her life with all her petty demands. Well, I went to journalism school, so I know that not only is that not the only way to achieve that goal, it's not even the best way. She'd have been better off working for a smaller-market newspaper or magazine or freelancing. Picking up a fashion magazine editor's dry cleaning isn't going to get her a job with Time or Newsweek and isn't teaching her to do anything that would put her on the right path, so every time her boss made her do something horrible, I would think "or you could freelance or work for a smaller magazine or newspaper." The book was a bestseller and the movie was very successful, so I suppose that wasn't a kiss of death, but that probably had more to do with the insider look at the fashion magazine industry and a thinly veiled portrayal of working for a famous person than it did with having clear-cut, strong motivation.

In other words, if you're making your hero swim across piranha-infested waters to get to his goal, there shouldn't be a bridge right there, unless maybe the bridge is guarded by trolls. It would take something pretty dire with no other way to do it to make someone do something so extreme.

A good exercise to learn to work with motivation is to think of some things your characters would never do, and then come up with reasons to motivate them to do those things. Those will likely be some really strong motivations if you can make characters do things they would have thought they'd never do and make it so that readers would believe they'd do them. You may have noticed that whenever a character in a book or a movie says near the beginning that he'd never do a particular thing, he'll be doing that thing by the end because the story will be set up in such a way that he has no choice.

To sum up, if you want a really strong motivation, have it come from some deep-seated need, make sure the consequences of not achieving the goal are dire (or make the outcome of achieving it be really, really good), and narrow the characters' options so that the thing they're doing is the only way they can achieve their goal. To make readers more sympathetic of actions that might otherwise be distasteful, make the motivation be about helping or saving someone else.

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