Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Character motivations versus plot motivations

One of the most critical ingredients of close point of view, from my perspective, is a strong basis in character motivation. I'm sure you've seen instances where characters are acting because the plot requires it, rather than because they have their own reasons to act. Places like this always give me the impression that the narrative has gone from deep to shallow, even when the close point of view is otherwise well-executed.

When I am planning a story, I always have a pretty good idea of how my characters will be feeling in any particular scene. However, I never feel 100% certain until I'm "on the ground" in a scene. This is one of the reasons why I tend to write in linear chronological order - but even if you don't, it's worth taking the time to go through the story in linear fashion to make sure all the motivations connect up to one another.

For me, plotting a character's reaction to something is not a simple matter of stimulus-response. I'd write out my way of thinking through the process like this:
  1. initial mental state
  2. stimulus
  3. judgment
  4. initial mental state + emotion inspired by judgment
  5. motivation
  6. response
Each one of these steps has to connect to the next for me to feel like the scene is seamless. To put it in prose:

Characters perceive plot events, judge them and react emotionally, which then causes them to feel a motivation to act in response.

Sometimes, especially in action, this occurs very quickly. I don't have to write out a separate sentence for each step in the process! But before I have a character enter an interaction, I go through in my head how he/she is feeling and why. Emotions concatenate. If we're already feeling tense, our reactions to a particular event will likely be magnified. If we're feeling rattled because of previous events, we may not be able to slow down enough to notice things, or to think through our response to what happens next.

As I write, I find myself thinking through the nature of emotions and motivations. What kind of emotional state might makes a person get so angry they might start throwing things? If a person often reacts in one particular way without thinking, what might be different about their reaction if they decided to do it on purpose? What does a character want to accomplish by their actions? Are they fully in control or on the edge? What behaviors do they engage in to counteract the feeling of being out of control? What could push them so far they might make a decision that hurts them in the long run? Why would they hurt a friend?

A character's actions, and particularly a point of view character's actions, must grow naturally out of his/her reaction to story events. If they don't, the sense of deep connection and plausibility will be lost. If you have a story that alternates point of view, make sure to ask yourself what happened in Character A's story while you were visiting Character B's head. It's important, because when you go back to Character A, that person's reactions won't necessarily have much to do with what was going on with Character B (unless they were in the same scene together). The state of mind with which they enter their next point of view scene will depend on what they were up to "offstage." So it's very good to have figured out what happened offstage! In fact, if I don't know what happened and what state of mind my character is in, I can't start a new scene at all.

By going through all this, I aim to create a sense of mental continuity with each character that runs from one end of a story to the other. If I find the plot requirements are dragging me off that continuity, then I either go back and change the character motivation so it will end up in the right place... or I change the plot.

It's something to think about.


  1. Love that you mentioned to pay attention to what was going on in the other characters world's. This is sometimes important, (especially if they're hiding something) and can change so much. I will sometimes write out those scenes, even if I don't use them, just to make sure, I don't "miss" any big reactions.
    Nice post.

  2. Tanya, thanks for commenting! I'm glad you connected with this post and enjoyed it. You're right that writing our the missing/hidden scenes could be helpful in some cases (though I confess I don't generally do it). I do write out backstory, but not usually "midstory."

  3. I'm struggling with characters in general, but I am coming around to getting my motivations set in and actually following the advice that I know.

    So far it's good during editing, because I feel a change for the better. Thankfully, I have only one POV in this novel, so that I can practice a bit more. :)

  4. Great post! This is one of the things I really love about your work -- that every character is so grounded, even if they're not the POV character. That makes them so real, which makes it easy to write them or how another character would view them.

  5. Harry, thanks for commenting and telling us about your writing process. I'm glad you're feeling like your characters are developing.

    Janice, thanks for the good word. It's funny, but this is one of the things I have put a lot of work in even when I was a beginner. My gut always told me it was important.

  6. A character shouldn't be entirely reactive, either. Event -> reaction, event -> reaction gets old after a few times. Doesn't this character have enough guts to go out and _cause_ things to happen?

    Then the fun (to us writers) is often to have the character cause something, even if it is to initiate a conversation, and then find the outcome not as expected. Now the character can react.

  7. You raise an interesting issue, Bruce. I think the degree to which a character causes events to occur depends on that character... When I say events occur and a character reacts, I mean just that - that a character will and should react to what happens to him/her. However, I don't mean that he/she is only reactive. Very often a character will perceive a situation (static or not) and feel a motivation to change it. To me, that is a case where the character perceives, judges emotionally, develops a motivation, and chooses to act to cause trouble. Same process, but somewhat different conditions at each step. Thanks for the comment!