Thursday, March 10, 2011

Developing Characters, Part 1: Motivation

You know the part in Galaxy Quest when Jason is stuck on the planet with the rock monster?  (If you do not know what I'm talking about because you have not seen Galaxy Quest--*gasp*--go watch it.  Right now.  Okay, or later. Sometime.)  Anyway, Jason's on this planet, trying to figure out how to defeat the rock monster.

There's a line that Alexander gives him:  "Well, you're just going to have to figure out what it wants.  What is its motivation?"

That's the thing about characters.  Every single one of them wants something in his/her life, for his/her life, for someone else in his/her life.  Human beings are complex.  Our emotions and thoughts and dreams are many.  There are ulterior reasons for doing things.  There are things we don't even realize until someone else points them out or we have an epiphany about why we're so motivated in one way or another.  There are quiet dreams and loud dreams.  And as many emotions and thoughts and dreams as there are, there are so many personalities to go with them.

I'd like to be able to say, "This is exactly how you write a well-rounded character!" but I can't.  There's no clear-cut way to write--everyone is so very, very different in how they approach writing.  Everyone has a style.  Everyone has a way they work best.  Music while writing, no music while writing.  Absolute quiet is needed, or can work around a hundred people talking.  And so on.

But every character is a person who exists on a page.  Every character has something they want, and if you can find at least one thing, you can develop that character much better.  It can be something that seems simple: a twelve-year-old who is desperate to fit into school.  It can be something that seems more complicated: a college student whose dream is to travel the world, train dolphins, and start a charity--but first, they have to figure out how to get out of the cellar that their evil, identical cousin locked them in and stop him from switching human brains with monkey ones.

So what does your character want?  And next, why do they want it?  Why do they do what they do?  Maybe they want to do something because of their parents or their friends, or because they saw a play in high school, or because becoming a mad genius who switches human and monkey brains sounded wizard, or because they watched an episode of Doctor Who and decided they wanted to find out if they could really grow a time machine.

Sometimes it takes a lot of digging and poking and prodding before I can figure out what my character really wants.  Sometimes they dance around in crazy circles and scream at the top of their lungs about what they're going to do and why.

You have to find out what your characters' motivations are.  I know some people write character interview questions and see how each character would answer the questions. Some people dive in and start writing to see what happens as it goes along.

Remember, motivations can change.  Sometimes, it's crucial in a character journey that their motivations change.  But then you will have new motivations, a new goal the character wants to work toward.  It takes patience, and persistence, and sometimes some banging of the head against the keyboard when your characters announce entirely new plans halfway through your novel.

But that's half the fun. Er, not the banging-the-head-on-keyboard part, but having fresh goals and character growth.

Do you have certain ways you learn about your characters?  Do you struggle with finding out what they want?

Stay tuned for the next post on characters, all about perspectives.


  1. Oh, characters!

    I kind of just let them wander from plot point to plot point and see what happens. It helps that a lot of the people I write are kind of directionless until their Epic Destiny pushes them out of the doorway...

  2. @Emily Kate Johnston Epic Destinies are great for shoving characters out the doorway. :D


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!