I ate four pieces of peanut butter toast and a full bag of marshmallows for dinner the other day. Mmmmm, yuck, mmmm. Why? It was probably self-sabotage because I have gained a little weight and it felt inevitable that I would gain more. I have a striking ability to let my mind wander into negative territory and I work against that tendency constantly. Thankfully my negative mind is wrong. Weight gain is not inevitable, today is a new day and I am back on track. But the event got me thinking about motivation.
If my “dinner” was written as a scene without the context of my life and struggle with weight, would a reader have believed that I would have eaten that “meal”? Why would someone who is knowledgeable about nutrition, has worked very hard to lose weight, and has other food options available, make such a negative choice? (Especially when it made her feel ill?) It barely makes sense to me, and it’s my life, so I have to admit it wouldn’t make sense to a reader. (It would also be a super dull scene, but not every day in my life can be a blockbuster. How exhausting would that be?) Realizing this I started to think about how I would make my “dinner scene” make sense to a reader. How would I explain the reasons behind marshmallow and peanut butter toast night? It was really difficult.
In my writing I struggle with how to reveal my character’s motivations. I tell myself stories about my characters. I think about them constantly. I know everything about their life, but I sometimes fail to share that knowledge with the readers. Then I wonder why the reader has trouble with how my characters react.
“Why would your Amanda steal the pen from her boss’s desk?”
“Because she wanted her father’s attention.”
“Wait, did I miss something? I thought her father died when she was ten…the boss isn’t her father is he?”
“No, but his office reminds her of her father’s den, where he would do business and ignore her, and he had the same type of pen. It was an act of rebellion to get attention.”
“Umm, don’t you think you should tell the reader that?”
“I don’t want to ruin the story by being too obvious. That would make it boring.”
The telling doesn’t have to be in words, in fact I think it’s better when the telling is more subtle. I might not tell my reader that Amanda stole her father’s favourite pens to get him to stop working and to get the attention that came with punishment. But I might show her getting into trouble and not being appropriately upset. Then I might show her father looking for his pen. Then perhaps show her leaving his wake to hide in her bedroom staring at a shoebox full of pens she has hidden under her bed. Then maybe her pen-stealing behaviour at a moment of crisis might not seem so confusing.
In another example, if you read a story where a boy pokes a girl with a ruler and calls her “tubs”, then she just breaks and stabs him to death with a compass (the math kind, not the navigational kind), you might think “really? A compass? Why now? And, wtf, a compass?” Your lack of understanding would lift you out of the story and back into your own head. But you might understand and accept the compass incident if the author had shown you: a closet full of unworn party dresses; a drunken mother ridiculing her daughter for lack of grace; a copy of some romantic love story with the boy’s name doodled on the cover; and, that same boy kissing another girl. It still wouldn’t explain the compass, but personally I think they are rather obvious stabbing tools.
NB. I have never stabbed someone (to death or otherwise) with a compass, or any other implement for that matter.
Writing Exercise – Motivation:
When I watch a movie or read a book and find myself saying, “I just don’t buy it”, I think about the character’s motivations. (Did I miss something? Were the character’s motivations sufficiently explained? What would have convinced me?)
If you want a character to be believable then you need to understand their motives, but even more, you have to help the reader connect to and believe in your character’s motivation.
Take your favourite fairy tale and think about the motives of the characters. But don’t just limit yourself to the protagonist and antagonist. Look to the secondary characters. Why are they there?
For example, did you ever wonder if Cinderella’s evil step sisters had reasons for wanting the glass slipper to fit (beyond getting the prince for themselves I mean)? Was the prince the only reason? Those were pretty nice shoes after all. Cinderella could totally have led a fashion renaissance with those glass slippers.
And, what about the mice that help Cinderella? Did they really want to help the pretty girl because she fed them? Or, did they see aiding her exit from the household as saving themselves from the giant who dressed them up and put them to work? I bet it was super hard to run from cats wearing dresses and hats.
The motivations you find may not be the ones intended by the original author, but I bet they’ll be interesting, and they just might open your mind to exploring the motivations of your own characters. Spend twenty minutes explaining the past and motivations of a secondary fairy tale character. Happy Writing.