At CBC we spend a lot of time, on our creative writing courses, talking about how to build convincing and fully realised characters. And, more generally, when we writers sit down to work on our novels, we’re likely to spend time scrawling in notebooks about our protagonists; figuring out what things they love and hate; what makes them individual and interesting; making sure that we really know them so that they will come properly to life on the page. We might even create a fact file for them, like something a surveillance operative assembles about their target. But recently, in tutorials, I’ve found myself questioning my students much more closely about another aspect of this business of characterisation and how it works to build story – and that is motivation.
Knowing your characters isn’t only about figuring out if they like to play tennis, whether they’re scared of the doctor and what caused the scar on their forehead. It’s also knowing at all times why they are doing particular things and behaving in certain ways in your novel. It’s about presenting credible action, which you understand and which the reader will buy into. And this holds for magical characters, fantastical and futuristic worlds and stories set many centuries ago just as much as for novels set in the present day and in ‘our world’. If your character behaves in ways that the reader doesn’t believe in, you will lose that reader.
Here are three points to consider in your writing:
(1) Work out the ‘why’: When you’re deciding on what your characters do in your story, you need to know why they’re doing it. And it needs to be a proper, actual reason. There have been times, lately, when I’ve asked a student to explain why a character has taken a particular unlikely action, and they’ve just looked at me blankly, and slightly nervously. I’ve been asked, “What do you mean?” I’ve been told, “I thought it would be clever”. Don’t contort your characters’ actions into crazy shapes to fit your idea of an exciting or innovative plot. Action must flow from character.
(2) General and specific credibility: Character motivation has two different faces to it, I think: Do we believe – generally – that a person would act in this way? And do we believe that this particular person would act in this way? Both of these points are important, but the second is more so. The second trumps the first. For example, an 18-year-old female university student finds out her tutor (male, and physically imposing) has committed a serious and violent crime, and decides to confront him about it in his office, late in the evening when nobody’s left in that part of the building. Is this believable in general? Well, we might struggle with the idea that any young woman would take action that would leave her so exposed and vulnerable. Why doesn’t she go to the police or the head of faculty or even her parents instead of trying to deal with this alone? Here’s where it’s crucial to persuade the reader that this specific character would act in this way. Is there something about this particular girl that would make her so brave and reckless? Perhaps she has been having an affair with her tutor, and feels sure that he wouldn’t hurt her because of their intimate relationship? Perhaps the author has already shown her in the novel to be headstrong, impulsive, prone to burning with a blind righteous anger …? We can only believe in this scenario if the author succeeds in convincing us that she would in fact take this action because of who she fundamentally is – and with a clear reason.
(3) Behaving out of character: I’ve just been talking about behaviour that is in character. But there are times, in fiction, when you need to show people behaving out of character. Indeed, story is often driven by those key moments when a person breaks with their normality – their habitual behaviours – and does something weird, dangerous, irrational, spontaneous. What follows, in story terms, might be the adventure that this out-of-character action sends them on – coupled with their journey to being a different/better person; or it might be their desperate attempts to restore normality and to restore themselves to the person they were. Again, though, we need to believe in the out-of-character action: Perhaps there’s a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back situation: the timid guy, trapped in a job he hates without the will or the confidence to get out of it, who suddenly snaps when his boss insults him personally one more time than he can tolerate. Or maybe a character will strike out with a courage that she generally lacks in order to protect someone she loves. Stories that work against character can be some of the most interesting, but they still need to be believable. You, the writer, need to be clear about the why, and make it convincing for the reader.
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