There are a lot of blog posts about your motivation as a writer. Why you write is important. This is not one of those posts. (Although, if you’re on Twitter, Kate Brauning had a great series of Tweets yesterday on checking your motivation for writing.)
One of my jobs as a therapist is to focus on motivation. It can be a bit of a puzzle to figure out why someone is behaving the way that they are. Most times they don’t even know. I always tell my clients that every action has a purpose. I scratch my nose because it itches. I shift in my chair because I want to be more comfortable. I punch a kid in the face because then I get attention from my dad. (To be clear, I have never punched a kid in the face. These are just examples.)
We usually have an idea of what the result of our actions will be. If I scratch my nose, it will no longer itch. If I get into a different position, my discomfort will be alleviated. If I punch a kid in the face, the teacher will call my parents and I will get quality time with Dad, even if he is screaming at me the entire time. Motivation doesn’t have to make sense to everyone, but it has to make sense to the person.
When I write, I use this same principle. What my characters do, each action they take, has to make sense in their mind, has to accomplish something for them. If a character gets all ragey because her best friend didn’t call, there has to be a reason behind it. Maybe the last time someone didn’t call, it was her boyfriend and he was cheating on her. Maybe it was because one time the person who didn’t call had been in a terrible accident. Maybe the best friend had betrayed her before. Nothing bothers me more than incongruent reactions.
That said…the motivation doesn’t always have to be explicitly stated. Knowing the character’s motivation is part of really knowing your character. You should be able to answer questions about your characters down to what they eat for breakfast, but that doesn’t all need to make it into the story. If you know your character, that will come through in their words, their actions, their personality. And their reactions will fit, because it is who they are.
AND this doesn’t only go for the main characters. Every named character in my books has their own story, their own personality, their own motivations. I should be able to sit down and write a “day in the life” sketch of any one of them, and in that sketch would be clues to why they behave the way they do. My favorite thing to do is sprinkle little hints and comments throughout that help lend credence to the differing personalities of my characters, sometimes so subtle that only I notice, and other times obvious enough that even the laziest reader will pick up on it. (Props to lazy readers…you are my people!)
That’s why I can never force my characters to do anything. It’s too obvious if they’re only doing it to advance the plot in the direction I want it to go. It’s also why I’m a pantser and not a plotter, because sometimes the way I think things should go is not actually in line with the personalities of my characters as they develop. And they’re quick to let me know that.
And when we start talking about how real the people in my head are is when we close this down… What is motivating your imaginary friends tonight?