The Importance of Understanding Character Motivations

Character motivations don’t receive enough attention sometimes, so I thought I’d talk about that today.

Think of any story – whether short story or novel – as a spoked wheel. Virtually all the major elements of the story lead back to a hub. And the hub is character motivation.

Character motivation yields:

  • Plot
  • Dialogue
  • Character interactions
  • Climaxes (Major and Minor)
  • Story Tension
  • Suspense

Some of these elements keep a reader engaged, while others yield a believable payoff. Readers have a feel for realistic character motivations. When a climax or revelation or plot element rings false, readers notice and the story loses credibility.

Writers can craft full character backgrounds or simply create characters on the fly. The approach doesn’t matter. What matters is that a writer absolutely has to understand the motivations behind each of their characters and ensure the motivations feel believable (and not shoe-horned in just to make a plot point) and remain consistent or at least evolve in a credible manner. There’s nothing wrong if a character’s motivations shift – as long as the reasons behind the shift are plausible – and not the writer’s clumsy attempt to work around poor plotting.

Plot is derived from characters and their motivations. Without characters wanting to do certain things and to have certain outcomes, there is no plot.

So when a writer becomes stuck, wondering where their plot is leading to next, it may be  the writer only needs to know the characters better and ensure that the characters really are living on the page and acting out their story – rather than being moved about like puppets.

This doesn’t mean a writer can’t begin with a plot outline and select character types to bring about the result. If a plot outline calls for a mole deep inside the inner workings of an intelligence organization, the writer has to fulfill the promise of that plot by bringing to life a character who breathes and whose actions (and betrayals) will feel authentic. Otherwise, it’s just a hackneyed plot with dull and lifeless and utterly not-believable characters.

When a writer understands the characters, the characters will interact and converse in a manner that makes each of them unique to a reader. Their conversations will mean something and not just be space-filler. A lot of stories are full of conversations that are about as interesting and illuminating as listening to the person in the grocery store aisle next to you talking on their phone while selecting a can of peas.

Good dialogue derived from motivations is interesting, necessary, distinct as to the speakers, and often quite memorable.

When characters come to life and their motivations feel real, they bring nuance and depth to the story. They bring about mini-climaxes that lead to bigger ones, and they lead the plot rather than the plot leading them.

For a visual of the last – picture the movements of a soccer match (football in deference to those in much of the rest of the world) with the players’ movements ranging all over in patterns that could never be predicted – although they definitely have a purpose we can discern.

And then picture some mice moving through a maze that a research scientist has devised.

Soccer (football) games are dynamic. Mazes are boring (*). And I suspect if the mice didn’t have a reward waiting for them at the end of the maze, they wouldn’t bother. A story should not feel like a maze with characters just moving between fixed walls. That kind of thing is transparent and the characters don’t feel like they’re pushing things forward on their own. They feel like mice plopped down into the writer’s plot, and the reader is staring down from above predicting where the character is going next.

* (Note: Leeds Castle Maze is probably sort of fun although the people really do look like mice. And the really neat thing is actually the underground Grotto in the middle.)

Character motivations do not need to always be apparent to a reader. The elements of tension and suspense depend on readers guessing around motivations and their possible outcomes. Readers need enough clues to feel the tension and suspense, but it’s a careful balance for the writer not to reveal too much, but instead, only enough.

Still, the writer can’t just dump a surprise on the reader at the end. If a character has been acting a certain way throughout a story and the big reveal is a motivation that previously hadn’t been hinted at and doesn’t feel believable in its revelation, the reader will have a sneaking suspicion a lazy writer inserted this just because the writer didn’t have a feel for their own character.

Even with a good feel for their character motivations, the writer will still need a good ear for dialogue, not rely upon deus ex machina plot interventions, and avoid other storytelling follies.

But understanding motivations will position and shape a story much more easily and naturally than forcefully ramming down pieces of plastic like a simulated Habitrail Home for the characters to run through.

How Long to Write a Novel?

The answer is: it depends on the writer and the story.

I generally have spent about 4 months writing each novel.  I’ve never written every day on a particular story.  I may do several days in a row and take a few days off, or other days interspersed with days spent on something else.  Partly this is when life’s events intrude, less often is mood, and more often it’s because I’d rather not rush a novel and the pace I’ve chosen tends to work for me, and I can still create one in about 4 months.

I usually write in 2-4 hour shifts, between 1,000 and 5,000 words.  I typically prefer to write an entire chapter if possible, or one or more scenes if that’s more feasible.

Every writer is different, though.  Some literary authors will craft their prose in the way a poet creates a poem, considering and balancing the taste and weight of every word within each sentence and the overall whole.  Some authors are dedicated toward a disciplined approach and either write each day with a specific time or a specific amount of product in mind before stopping.  Stephen King discusses the various approaches at length in his excellent book On Writing, and there’s little need for me to add much more – his anecdotes about styles are also highly entertaining.

I usually mull an idea off and on for a month or two before beginning a novel.  Stories I’ll often write cold (other than research for a locale if needed).

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I need to have insight into what my main character is feeling before I begin a work.  I sometimes have a very rough idea of an opening scene, and an idea of the main challenges facing the character and whatever friends she ends up making along the way.

For Glowstar I had a strong image of a young woman being pulled from the icy Hudson River – only she isn’t dead.  I liked the idea of the Gatherers (Light Gatherers and Dark Gatherers) and an exploration of what makes us human as well as what enduring love really means.  The opening chapter is here.  It took around 3-4 hours to write the first chapter. I did the opening scene one evening and the closing scene the next evening.

Glowstar took 4 months from early December 2010 to early March 2011 to complete.  Revisions followed. The first one I began about a month after finishing, and it took a week or so off and on to clean up a few scenes, tighten language, and fix typos (typically missing or misplaced words).  I did a second revision a couple weeks afterward which took another week or so.  After that, I only made a few  tweaks here or there in a few places when I re-read.

The Winter Fade series was envisioned with a distinct story-arc that naturally fell into three works.  I wrote them back-to-back since I had ideas for each.  Not full-fledged plots, but general ideas and a strong sense of feeling for the character at these stages in her life.  The first book (Winter Fade) was written between April through July 2008.  The second book was from August through mid-November 2008, and then I took a couple weeks to put the first book through its first revision.  The third book is actually the shortest of the three but the one that did involve some plotting – especially for the first half – and took a little longer, from December 2008 through June 2009.  Part of that was interspersed with revision work being done on the first two books to ensure continuity.  I’m not a fan of doing contortions in retconning something after the fact.

The first story of the Becomings collection, Isabel, took four days in mid-April 2010 (7,500 words).  Darya took two weeks in late April and early May (18,000 words – just under novella size).  Katharine took three weeks in late October through mid-November 2010 (15,000 words).

I tend to intersperse writing with research into settings and other fact-finding that I want to use to inform my writing.  And revision work happens in-between as well.

I don’t like to parallel-write two works at the same time – although I have jotted down scenes for upcoming works while working on a current one.

Start-to-finish – writing through iterations of revisions – is usually about 6-8 months per novel.

When I speak of research informing my descriptions, as I’ve mentioned before I will do considerable research to gain a feel for what I’m looking at, and then use only the smallest amount needed to describe it.

For this scene:










I researched how immigrants arrived to New York City in the late 1940s (the Queen Mary was a very common mode – especially coming from Great Britain).  I looked into dates and times of arrivals to the harbor, as well as viewed pictures and videos and floorplans of the ship.  Very little of that appears in the writing; there’s a mention of the cramped tourist-class cabin deep within the ship, and the teak decks.

Every writer finds their own way to describe scenes and how much research they want to utilize, or whether to weigh more toward imagination.  I do a lot of research because I can research and absorb a considerable amount of information in an extremely short span of time – something that came handy in college.  I do that partly because it helps me begin to connect with a scene, and also because I do not regurgitate tons of data back into my writing.  I use research sparingly on the output end of things.

But I also do a lot of research because I simply love to read and to learn new things.  That’s exciting for me, and the excitement spreads to my own writing.

There are some fine writers who do no research – or virtually none – at all.  Stephen King has said that he not only doesn’t outline or pre-plot, but that he wings pretty much anything he writes and doesn’t bother with research.  He’s frankly amazing in that manner – he noted once that he had thrown in a mention of a dirty-comic version of certain animated characters in The Green Mile and was pleased and surprised when a fan discovered and sent him a copy of a similar comic that had actually been done during that time period.

These are my own methods and pace for writing, and every writer has to find what works for them.  A lot depends as well on whether one is able to write only part-time or full-time, plus life events creating challenges for dedication and discipline.  One thing that a person takes away from Stephen King’s On Writing is the level of dedication and discipline that he has taken with his craft.  The biographical first half of the book drives that point home, as one comes to realize all that he faced throughout his career.

For the record, I always highly recommend King’s book.  Although many others – such as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life also have a lot to offer a writer for perspective (and Dillard is an especially gifted writer with some really beautiful prose – showcased in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), King’s book comes off the way he has always written – direct and intimate, conveying his points in just the right language that you understand what he’s trying to say.

Tension Makes The Story Go ‘Round

When people talk about page-turners of stories, they’re talking about tension.

Tension in a story is a great thing. It is anticipatory rather than the negative connotation that many associate with the word.

Basically, tension is the opposite of predictability. When a reader feels they know the ending and there is nothing holding their attention, they will either end the book early, finish it just to finish it, or flip forward to finish it even faster. There is no enjoyment in any of those scenarios.

When I wrote about Journey or Destination, I discussed how some authors focus upon an ending but shortchange the middle of their books, stuffing them with filler.

Filler doesn’t create tension; it builds impatience and annoyance in readers.

A good example of filler would be characters following leads to dead-ends, and a sense from the reader that the author planned the dead-end just to satisfy word-count requirements. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. There’s no shame in creating a more compact narrative, even if Stephen King once described (in Different Seasons) the novella as a sort of literary oddity no one really wants (not his words – his own description in the Afterword is rather straightforward and amusing).

A page-turner of a story never feels padded, and a reader feels that skimming or flipping ahead means they will miss something – and probably something important or at least very interesting.

There are different ways to build tension in a story. One way is by using shorter chapters with cliffhanger endings that lead directly into the next chapter. This is a tactic Kelley Armstrong has discussed she likes to employ for that specific reason. Her stories tend toward mystery-solving, melded with internal conflicts in the main character and romantic entanglements to also be resolved. So she pulls the story forward on typically three fronts.

Engaging characters and a sense of something new always around the corner is another way. Patricia Briggs has done this quite well – her first Mercy Thompson book Moon Called was still introducing characters and background (along with the main plot moving forward) halfway into the book. The key to Briggs’s style is discovery. She is a world-builder who paints on a broad palette. I would liken that approach to Stephen King’s style, who also prefers to populate his stories with multiple characters and many moving parts – main storylines interwoven with smaller story elements.

Thrillers thrive on “always something new” as well, although unlike world-builders there is still a pervasive sense of linearity – moving toward an ultimate resolution – similar to the mystery format. Thrillers tend to pack in mini-climaxes throughout the storyline, with new revelations pushing characters and story ever-closer toward the ending goal.

None of these approaches are absolutely distinct and more often there are hybrid elements involved. As I noted above, Kelley Armstrong delves both into external and internal crises, but also often involves a romantic aspect. And romance is another area that builds tension. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be ‘shipping or “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” for Twilight or “Jaters” and “Skaters” for Lost.

Readers who feel invested in the characters and are presented with options get to feel tension when the choice of who-gets-whom isn’t certain.

I tend to feel that every chapter should have a purpose. If it feels rudderless, it doesn’t work. Same with wading through a chapter just to get to the other side. Not a fun experience and not consistent with tension-building.

I really do believe that readers can sense when a writer is having fun, enjoying themselves as they experience a joy at discovery akin to the reader’s. This kind of excitement translates through the story and finds an echo in the reader’s enjoyment.

So no chapter should ever feel like a trudge for the writer, because it will be even more so for the readers forced to trudge alongside (or skim ahead, hoping to escape).

Good chapters stand alone. They have a strong center that holds. They have themes. They have a sense of real purpose and they advance the characters and story in a real and meaningful way.

A good way to test a chapter for whether it does this is to try to give it a title other than “Chapter Twenty-Four.” If you can easily come up with a single word (or even two words) that encapsulate what the chapter is about, you probably have a good feel for the purpose that chapter was intended to serve. If the writer can’t sum up the chapter better than “walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle” (to borrow a phrase one Lost-blogger used to employ in her recaps to skim the scenes where nothing was happening), then perhaps that chapter or scene isn’t really necessary. Or perhaps it could at least be compressed, or incorporated into something more exciting.

I would strongly recommend any writer to always think tension with the turn of every chapter and every scene. Keep that word ever-mindful and use it to the best of one’s ability. Readers will appreciate it and it’s what will keep them turning the pages and always wanting more.