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What’s the Real Motive?

When you’re creating a well-rounded character, one of the great secrets behind understanding the character comes from understanding the character’s secret, often hidden motives. Understanding a character comes from understanding why they act the way that they do.

Time and again, I find authors who sort of cheat themselves. As they create a character and quickly begin plotting a novel, they assign a simple motive for their character’s actions, and leave it at that. Thus, the characters often feel overly simplified.

My daughter is an actress, and often when she was young I would see her take a character role at a workshop, and the instructor would ask, “What’s your character’s motive?” Once my daughter had the answer, then the teacher would say, “No, what’s your character’s real motive?” And of course my daughter would search for a deeper reason for why the character did what they did. And then the teacher would say, “Really, what’s your character’s motive?”

In other words, she’d seek to find a real answer, not the first thing that came to mind. But motives can be slippery things. They change from second to second.

For example, let’s imagine a scenario where a sheriff in Montana responds to a silent alarm at a restaurant. He approaches a back alley and sees a young Native American rushing out of the alley. Upon seeing the police officer, the young man raises his hands and yells, “Don’t shoot!” And perhaps the cop wonders why he is so terrified—which makes him wonder what this young man has been up to.

As the young man yells, he reaches with one hand behind his back, as if to grab a gun, and the sheriff squeezes his trigger gently. At the very same instant, he sees a white girl start to step out of a doorway, pulling her blouse shut, and he has to wonder—was this a tryst? A sexual assault in progress?

And the gun goes off, striking and killing the young man.

In that instant, what did the sheriff know? Not a lot. It could have been an accident. But the local newspaper editor the next day will accuse the sheriff of being a racist. The editor assigns what I call an apparent motive, telling his own version of the story. This happens a lot. Right now we’re preparing for elections, and you’ll see lot of accusations where one party will assign the other an “apparent” motive. These are almost always simplistic and evil motivations, and the person who makes the accusation is the worst kind of liar. (And both Republicans and Democrats are doing it on a daily basis.)

But let’s get back to our sheriff.  What happens if the white girl steps into the light, and the sheriff recognizes her as his own daughter? How does that affect his own apparent motivation? And what if as the story develops, we learn that the sheriff had once been in love with the young man’s mother—and that they even married for a short time, and that unknown to him, the young man is his son? How does that change his motivations?

Do you see how, as we develop past relationships for this sheriff and begin to see the history of his upbringing, his religious beliefs, his friendships and loves, the sheriff’s real feelings and motivations grow layer by layer until he no longer becomes a simple stick figure, but a real character with his own unique makeup?

In most novels—particularly in mysteries and dramas—understanding the motivation lies at the core of your character. An author might start his story with a simple image, like the sheriff shooting a young Native American, and then begin to add scene upon scene, exploring the sheriff’s upbringing and experiences in an effort to enlighten us as to his motivations. Of course bystanders will accuse the sheriff of having his own over-simplified motivations, while those who love him might well assign him nobler ideals than he really has.

If you’re familiar with the Snowflake method of plotting, I think that you can see how that one incident forms the nucleus of a story, a starting point, and each new scene (or sometimes a series of scenes) helps to deepen the audiences’ understanding of who the character really is.

So next time that you create a major character for your story—whether it be a protagonist, a love interest, and antagonist, contagonist, guide character, sidekick, or whatever—spend some time before you assign motivations. Ask yourself over and over again, “What is his or her real motivation?”


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