Monday, February 3, 2014

Character motivations: Threats vs. Acceptance

The other day when we were speaking with Myke Cole (report and video here) about his new novel Breach Zone, he floated an idea that I've been thinking about a lot since. He asked what motivates us to follow laws and have good behavior, and the answer he suggested was that we fear reprisal - ultimately, that we fear the power that our government has to damage or kill us. Without a public understanding that government has the dominant share in the use of force, he argued, the whole system breaks down.

It's interesting when you hear a thought that your gut immediately objects to, but which you can't necessarily put a finger on why. Is it just that this is an ugly truth that I don't want to accept? Or is it that the picture is incomplete somehow?

A dear friend of mine, Deborah J. Ross, is involved with the movement to end the death penalty in CA. Through her I've learned a lot about the death penalty, and one of the many arguments used against it is that the death penalty is not a deterrent. True, the myriad delays etc. may factor into that, but it's an interesting counterpoint to consider, in my opinion.

I think we are far more sensitive to more immediate penalties in our environment than we might think. A fear of death is not what keeps us obeying the social rules of our school cliques. There is a degree to which fear of pain, of bullying and reprisal, are part of rule enforcement for those groups, but if we are going to be talking about the motivation provided by "the stick," I think it's important not to omit "the carrot."

The carrot is acceptance - a feeling of belonging within the group and benefiting from that membership in numerous ways. We benefit from the social groups we are a part of in many ways. They combat loneliness. They help us to formulate our sense of identity and self-worth.

I got thinking about this also when Chuck Wendig posted about spanking children being like hitting children. The whole idea behind the spanking disciplinary strategy is that of the "stick", but as Chuck himself argued, it only makes a child fearful and more likely to hide behaviors he/she engages in. Certainly babies and children would prefer not to be struck, but simply leaving them alone is not enough; they need to be cuddled or they fail to thrive. The job of baby cuddler in the hospital is a very important one. I don't want to veer off into spanking as a major discussion here, but my point is that threats accomplish one sort of thing, and acceptance accomplishes very different things.

And both are extremely strong motivators.

As a storyteller, you can get incredible mileage in terms of character motivation if you think about the kinds of threats and the kinds of acceptance offers that your characters encounter - either on the giving or the receiving end - in their daily lives. The characters I'm working with now, Corbinan and Meetis, are fascinating to me in this department. Both characters are members of the Varin undercaste, so one might imagine they are likely to have their behavior controlled a great deal by threats. Indeed, they encounter quite a number of threats, some of them neither personal nor fair.

When Corbinan's team has bad luck and a piece of shoddy equipment breaks on their watch, they get penalized even though they were not at fault. Corbinan's team is also in fact a gang, because outside of work they need to stick together to keep themselves from being robbed (threat) and also to keep their rent low. If they were found living six people to a two person apartment, they might be penalized (threat), but the benefit of the safety and camaraderie combined with the lower rent (acceptance) is sufficient that they do it anyway. On the day the equipment breaks, several team members are angry enough to leave the girl who "broke" the equipment. Corbinan, however, sticks with her because he knows she will be jumped if he leaves her alone. The two of them are jumped anyway and have to fight off a gang of kids. During this interaction, Corbinan grabs a boy and threatens to break his arm if the boy doesn't order the others to back off. The boy does, and they do back off, but while Corbinan is retreating he tells the boy that he once belonged to the same gang, and offers to teach him to read - a skill that will help the boy escape from the domineering gang leader. Thus, when he lets go of the boy, the boy does not go back on the offensive but leads the rest of the kids away. He uses both threats and a promise of help and acceptance into the larger society to influence the boy's behavior.

Meetis is a girl who was abandoned by her parents when they fell on hard times, and who became a pickpocket at the age of 9 in order to stay alive. That would be a case where the threat of starvation outweighs the threat of legal force. One of her friends in the neighborhood would occasionally give her food, and when that friend died suddenly, the friend's parents offered to take Meetis in. They had two motivations for doing this. One, they liked her, and were already helping her stay alive. Two, they would be evicted from their home (threat) if they did not have their child living with them. So Meetis became their daughter and took her name. This is another case where the idea of acceptance, food, and safety was more powerful than the possible threat of discovery and punishment by the police. Of course, the discovery of her identity becomes the inciting event for her character arc, so the threat of punishment is certainly there - it causes her to leave the home she loved and her adoptive parents and flee the city entirely.

I hope these couple of examples can get you thinking about the various ways in which threats and offers of acceptance can interact in the motivations of your characters. I'm very thankful to Myke for visiting the hangout and also for making me think about such a meaty topic!



  1. Myke is good for generating those ideas and deeper thought on topic isn't he?

    1. Yes, absolutely. But I will also note that many of my guests get me thinking. That's one of the great things about my hangouts! :)

  2. A nice, thoughtful (and thought provoking) entry, as always.

  3. Thinking about character motivations in terms of threats and acceptance like this is going to be super helpful for the short stories I'm working on right now--thanks for the entry!