Sunday, July 31, 2011

Writing Advice 7 — The Why, the Engines of a Story


In lesson number four, I explained the Who, the What, and the Where, but I left out the Why.  As you might recall, Who equals characterization, Where equals setting, and What equals what then is the Why?

When creating a character a very important, and often overlooked aspect, is their motivation as this dictates much of their characterization and how they fit in the story. Most main characters have clear motivations because the story is usually about what they want and how they go about obtaining it. The problem is, sometimes writers stop there.

I once played a computer game back in the early nineties. It was a role playing game and known for having a huge world, with many towns that you could interact with, only they were all the same. Auto generated, the towns all looked alike and the people were all generic copies. It was like some disturbing Twilight Zone episode. It was also boring. Books can be that way too if the only person in the book with motivation is the main character.

In the original movie version (not so much the extended one) of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t understand why Pippin and Merry joined Frodo and Sam. They appeared to be strangers who bumped into each other on the road and decided to give up their lives, friends, homes, and responsibilities to wander off the map with apparently total strangers. This wasn’t Tolkien’s fault, he provided all the motivations and back stories in his books, they just never made it to the movie’s original release. Yet many novelist make the same mistake of skipping the motivation for supporting characters as non-essential—and then of course there’s the antagonist.

Evil for evil’s sake—it is an common theme in fantasy, but also pops up in other genres, most notably horror and occasionally thrillers.  Fantasy has been around for a long time and in ages past I suspect world perceptions were simpler. How else could nations justify wholesale slaughter of peoples merely because they were barbarians, or savages, or—evil. This black and white attitude lingers but not so much in the modern world of fantasy novels. Readers are showing a greater interest in more complex character motivation, particularly in their bad guys. They are no longer satisfied with a Sauron or Voldemort who are evil and motivated only by power and domination. They want to know…why. (Although oddly enough old Voldemort did surprisingly well for himself.)

When you take the time to consider why the evil menace wants to destroy the world, you realize that destroying the world is a pretty stupid thing in the first place, because it holds no advantage to the destroyer who would presumably die along with everyone else. Enslaving all of mankind? Okay, but why? Is it just an inferiority complex? They want to be the most important? Okay, but why? What made them this way?

The more times you ask yourself “why” the deeper the character becomes, and the more interesting. Also you manage to weed out all the false values, things that don’t make sense like wanting to destroy the world. Most people have better motivations than a three-year-old in the midst of a tantrum. The extra work often results in far more interesting plot elements that open whole new ideas that are not only more sensible, but far more interesting, fun, and sometimes even original.

While coming up with motivations aren’t all that hard, aligning the motivations so that they interconnect the way they need to in order to make an interesting novel, is. And if you are doing a good job then absolutely every character in a novel, no matter how insignificant, has a motivation. The direction they want to go and the things they want to do extend like dotted lines out into the future in a straight line. You alter them so that they intersect with the dotted lines of other characters and where they meet they often change, skew and shift their angle to head off in a different direction, otherwise known as growth or character arcs. The resulting pattern of dotted lines is the story. It is what drives the characters, and the characters drive the reader. Motivations are the little engines that you wind up and let go. Without them, characters appear false. They become one more prop, like a chair or a table.

Motivations are also logic lines. They should prevent you from doing stupid things. Everyone has read a book or seen a movie where you say, “no one would do that.” Usually this is the result of the character’s motivation being in conflict with the way the writer wants the story to go. You’ve likely heard writers say their characters take the story places they didn’t expect. This is what they mean. You can either force a story to be what you want, or let the characters follow their motivations and see where that leads. The former always feels contrived and your audience will find it unbelievable. It is almost always best to listen to the characters and let them be the people you made them into. I once had a group of characters who had been traveling through the snow by horse all day and were supposed to leave the road and head into the wilds. That's what the outline called for, only as it happened, there was a town just a few miles ahead and it was late in the day. Almost all my characters wanted to get a nice warm room in the town rather than sleep out in the ice and snow. I didn't want to write a whole chapter concerning their adventures in the town, which I would be forced to do, but no amount of coaxing would change their minds. Why? Because every time I imagined myself in their shoes, there was just no way I would pass up a warm bed. The scene played out that the characters actually had an argument in the middle of the road, and decided to sleep in town. To force the issue would have contrived the plot. In the end, I used the unexpected, added chapter to further develop the characters and the book was richer for it.

Something to keep in mind is that as motivations are the desires of characters based on the information they have at the time, it should invariably lead to characters making the wrong assumptions about others and about the outcome of events and their own plans. All too often I have read stories where the characters always anticipate what will happen perfectly. A good popular example of this is the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. The film makes use of an interesting flash-forward technique, where Holmes, using his keen skills can anticipate in a fight what will happen and plans out his course of action accordingly. You see the event, and then the scene is replayed and it always occurs precisely as he planned it. Not only did I find this unlikely, and a bit repetitious, I felt it was a waste of potential. For once the technique is established, the sheer drama of this flash-forward failing would be great. We would see what Holmes planned to do, only to have something unexpected occur, giving us two stories rather than a dull rerun.

While this problem can come from sheer laziness, I think all too often it is the result of writers being unable to detach themselves from their characters. When the author is the character, it is a bit like god inhabiting the body of a person. They can’t be wrong. Characters should usually be wrong, most people are, or at least only partially right. Otherwise, as soon as a character suggests what might happen, the reader knows it will and you’ve just provided a spoiler that will steal all the drama from the upcoming scene. However, if the writer can block out all they know and really be just that one character, locked in ignorance, bound by their fears, and driven by their personal desires, their world colored by their past, then it is usually a simple thing to guess at their next move, and their expectations. These will likely not be what is about to happen. The result is a more dynamic and exciting plot that keeps the reader turning pages and surprising them.

There is however a difference between a character making a logical mistake based on what they don't know, and a character being stupid. Sometimes writers cause their characters to make ridiculous decisions, or draw insane conclusions  in order to advance the plot the way they want it to go. This is a cheat, and readers know this. To guide characters in the right directions, merely adjust the world around them so that it alters their motivation and then let them go. And if you can't alter the world to accommodate the motivational change, then you'll just have to accept that the story is about to change in an unexpected way.

So you can see how important motivations are. Once set, they can completely alter what it was you expected you were going to write. But having them breathes life into otherwise dead characters and helps prevent stupid mistakes. Let’s face it, no one would ever stalk a vampire at night, or even a cloudy day, unless they had an extremely good reason. No one would go back into a wall-bleeding, haunted house unless they had to. Motivations comprise the story that is flavored by characterization and accented by unexpected challenges.

It also needs to be understood that characters don’t have just one motivation. Sure Frodo wants to destroy the ring, sure Harry wants to defeat Voldemort, but before that, they both want to eat breakfast. And just as motivation drives the big picture, motivations drive the mini-stories that move the plot forward.

That’s the bell. Next week we’ll look at Mini-Stories. Remember, no running in the halls


  1. Motivation is far too often the _only_ thing I think about when I write. Working as an archaeologist, trying to decipher and explain how and especially why someone did something this or that way is something I find frustratingly interesting. You start with the primal needs and move on to the emotional needs and compare it to avalible resources. I was overly focused on rationalizing actions of people who had been dead for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years until my uncle, the wise old shrink that he is, read something I had written and then lectured me at length about the fundamental human trait of irrationality.

    I like to compare som vilians in literature (fantastic and other generes) to that of the Joker in 'the dark knigth' when he describes his own motivation as of that of a dog chasing a car. If he ever caugth up with it, he wouldn't know what to do with it.
    So if this "dark lord" or other ever managed to enslave the entire world or whatever, migth be he would be a bit stumped because it was about the struggle and the chase, and not the goal.

  2. Interesting approach Tokrika. Definitely something to keep in mind.

  3. Fantastic post, Michael. It's funny how we as writers become less human as we become so focused on a convoluted plot. We forget the basic needs of man: a place to sleep, a meal to eat, and a friend to share it with. I'm finding that writing a novel is easier once I have those three things in place. This blog needs to never end. Thanks for it!

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