Monday, October 31, 2011

Motivation, Motivation, Motivation!

While I'm blessed to not have to do a lot of revisions, the most frequent one I'm asked to make is to flesh out my character's motivation.  As the author, I know my characters intimately and because of this - sometimes I forget to clue the reader in on what they are thinking, or the most important of elements: why they do the things they do.

When you think of a character as TSTL (too stupid to live) or hugely unsympathetic, it's almost always because the author hasn't shown you sufficient or acceptable-to-you motivation for their actions.  Why did the girl go into the basement when she suspected the ax wielding psychopath was down there?  Too often the why is so spurious, the girl is pronounced TSTL.  But what if she weren't?  What if she were a former Marine carrying a weapon?  Or a mother who believed she could convince her son to stop?

I've been a teenager...so have you.  I've raised a few of my own as well and I can say honestly, I've never known any as stupid as the ones that seem to populate horror movies.

Otherwise intelligent characters can come off looking criminally stupid when their actions aren't properly motivated.  So, what are some of the common "motivation mistakes" we see in writing?

  • The character who acts based on the simple misunderstanding.  We've all heard of this one, yes?  We're told that the "big misunderstanding" is a rotten reason for conflict in a book.  Our teachers and mentors are oh, so right.  A misunderstanding that would easily be remedied by discussion with someone else (doesn't even have to be the other protagonist) won't motivate behavior that is otherwise unbelievable.

Nothing is more annoying than slogging through pages of conflict between two otherwise likable people simply because one of them has the wrong end of the stick and refuses to grasp hold of the right one.


  • The hero or heroine whose actions are driven by faulty and unreasonable assumptions.  Assumptions that make no sense to your readers will not float your story...not even in the name of humor.  Your readers need to be rooting for your characters and their happy endings, and that's not as likely when they consider your hero or heroine too ridiculous for words.

Properly motivated spurious assumptions can make for really good reading though.  Think about the heroine who thinks he would never be interested in her when in reality he fancies her something rotten.  If she believes this because she's been rejected by boys all her life as being too boring or because he has a well known type and she'd antithetical to it, well that can work, yes?  But if she simply believes it to move the story forward another 20 pages, readers are going to know that and get mightily irritated.

  • The character who pops up out of nowhere and disappears the same way when they've played the prop they need to your plot.  If you have a villain, or a well-meaning matchmaker pushing your characters together, please take the time to figure out the how and why and explain that to your readers.
Something to remember when its relevant to the type of story you are writing: your protagonist is only as strong as the villain they're facing and if that villain isn't motivated or fleshed out, the protagonist comes off looking weak and ineffectual - even when they win.

  • The character that is unsympathetic.  This character is often motivated by things that readers by and large find less than heroic or understandable.  My super alpha heroes are often unlikable in the beginning of a book, but I plant the seeds for their redemption as early as the first page, if I can.  This is also where my editors often ask me to go back and reveal more of his reasons for doing what he does to the reader.
Someone suggested I watch "Doc Martin" (a British medical show that I think is supposed to be funny), so I did.  I find pretty much all of the characters incomprehensible and somewhat unlikable.  The final episode I watched (I gave it more than one chance) that absolutely turned me off the show had the local school teacher who was interviewing for the position of head mistress treat a child whose mother was in hospital like a total bother.  Since children and their welfare is a hot button for me, that was the final straw for me.  I've no interest in watching another episode.

When this happens in a book, I'll end up adding an author to my "Do Not Buy No Matter How Intriguing the Story Sounds" list.  I know I've had a character, or two, hit a reader in the same place.  One of my heroes, I realized I could have done a better job of revealing his inner workings throughout the book and his transformation at the end...another, I stood by.

The woman who thought I would love "Doc Martin" really enjoyed the show herself and was hugely disappointed when it got cancelled after 5 seasons.  So, we have to acknowledge that what is unlikable for one reader may well be adorable to another.  This is where it becomes hugely important to understand your market and the heroic archetypes that work (and conversely don't work) for your readers or potential readers.  It's not enough to say, "Well...she's just not my reader," when her viewpoint is reflected in the vast majority of your target market.

The character whose behavior is obviously driven by plot or word count.  I'll admit these books are my least favorite and most likely to get an author on my "Do Not Buy" list.  But we've all read them, haven't we?  The story that could have been over on page 50 but drug on to 397 because the characters just kept doing things that made no sense so the story could be longer.  Even worse is the character who plainly doesn't fit the plot. The author is intent on writing a certain story, but she chose the wrong characters to tell it with and this is apparent in Chapter One and never, ever gets better.

In short, when writing the complex or the simple, one thing remains paramount: motivation!

It's your turn:  what's your favorite new television show?  Are the characters likable, or interesting enough to be unlikable and still watchable?

14 comments:

shadow_kohler said...

i like the 'new girl' tv show. its quirky and funny!

Virginia said...

Once Upon a Time I have watched a couple of times and am still not sure about it but haven't given up yet on it. Its different for sure.,

Maureen said...

My favorite new show is Prime Suspect. It's funny because when I saw all the previews I didn't find it appealing at all. I thought it was about a super cop that everyone adored but it really is about a woman who is not too likable trying to be a homicide detective in a department that is not very welcoming to her.

Judy said...

I have a tendency to look at the shiny, new shows, and quickly lose interest. I'm still watching Terra Nova and Unforgettable. I like the starting something new of Terra Nova, and the dinosaurs are fun. The premise of Unforgettable I find fascinating. I remember so little of my life before I was in my 20s. I used to complain that my mind was like a sieve. I didn't realize God was protecting me. Now, people complain about how well I remember everything. :-)

Jane said...

I'm enjoying Hart of Dixie. Rachel Bilson is a likable actress and her character is someone you can root for. I'm also liking Person of Interest.

Sherry Gloag said...

I hate Doc Martin too for the reasons you list. DH? He thinks it's hugely funny!
Thanks for an interesting post.

Laney4 said...

I tape my shows and am months behind.... The only new one I have taped but don't know if I'll continue taping or not is Rosie O'Donnell's show. I'm guessing that I'll fast-forward through most of the show, as I'm more interested in certain guests.
There aren't any new prime-time shows that I am taping. I am, however, enjoying lots of Piers Morgan Tonight shows. (Can you tell I like talk shows?) Oh! And I'm looking forward to hearing more about Regis's replacement....

Lucy Monroe said...

One thing we can say with certainty is that regardless of complaints to the contrary, there really is a wide diversity of programming out there to match our divergent tastes. :)

catslady said...

My favorite show is Castle. He's an author afterall lol. I like drama mixed with some humor. I like the sexual tension between the main characters. I like all the characters but especially Nathan Fillion lol.

Lorna said...

I also like the New Girl show and Whitney. I find the characters are believable ( with the exception of keeping a horse in the city) and the characters are likable. I also love The Big Bang Theory. The actors really stay in character when they are working and I find the scripts to be well written. There is a trend to my TV watching - I like humor and 30 minutes long :-)

Sherry said...

No new shows but I have gone back to an old show with a new cast member. The family had gotten tired of CSI (the original Las Vegas unit)and pretty much quit watching but this year they have added Ted Danson as the new boss and IMO he has revitalized the show.

Judy said...

I have to agree with Sherry on that one. I do like the addition of Ted Danson's character.

lisagk said...

I'm addicted to TV. I like New Girl, Whitney, Prime Suspect, Against the Wall, and Unforgetable. I like New Girl because she is so goofy. Whitney is kind of snarky, Prime Suspect becuase she gets so intense. and Against the Wall because of the family conflict. Unforgetable makes the list just because I like Poppy Montgomery.

Lorna said...

Oops, when I said I like Whitney, I was actually thinking about 2 Broke Girls. Love that show and now my reference to the horse might make sense :-)