Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Character Motivation

I believe that character motivation is one of the most important elements in a story. It’s what makes the reader feel like a character is real, has feeling, and has an independent mind. Without this connection, it becomes very easy to see the strings dangling from the hands of the puppet master (the author).

What exactly does this mean? Well as a writer you have a plot in mind that you will guide your character through, and if the character is out of place, it will jump out to the reader like a flashing neon sign that the author does not know what they are doing.

For example: Say you have a Buddhist monk who has spent his entire life meditating, never killing a single thing; not even a mosquito. Then Rambo enters, trying to get away from the bad guys and asks the monk to help him out. If the monk starts fighting to help out Rambo; the reader is going to throw that book across the room. If for some reason you need the monk to start fighting you are going to need a REAL good reason to motivate this monk to forsake everything he’s ever believed in.

Pretty simple, but hopefully you get the point. Most cases it won’t be as obvious as this, and you as an author have to keep the motivations of your character in perspective, making sure that if you have them do something that they normally wouldn’t do, there needs to be a very good reason.

Another example would be a scene from the movie (I’ll try to use some literary examples in the future, but I think even in the writing community a there is a greater penetration for a lot of movies than most books.) The Shawshank Redemption, which just so happens to be based on a novella by Stephen King. So if you want, you can read a really good work by a skilled writer. But anyways, on to the example. One scene has the main character, Andy a former banker in prison for murdering his wife, on the roof of the license plate factory as part of a group of inmates chosen to do that work. At this point in the movie Andy is regularly being raped and does not really have any friends. Well he overhears one of the (notoriously violent and ruthless) guards talking about an inheritance he received, and how he’s disappointed that most of that money will be taken away by taxes. Andy approaches the guard and here is the transcript from that scene:

Mr. Hadley. Do you trust your wife?

HADLEY (The guard with the inheritance)
That’s funny. You’re gonna look
funnier suckin’ my d*** with no
f***** teeth.

What I mean is, do you think she’d
go behind your back? Try to
hamstring you?

That’s it! Step aside, Mert. This
f*****’s havin’ hisself an accident.

Hadley grabs Andy’s collar and propels him violently toward
the edge of the roof. The cons furiously keep spreading tar.

HEYWOOD (another inmate)
Oh God, he’s gonna do it, he’s
gonna throw him off the roof…

SNOOZE (One of the other guards)
Oh s***, oh f***, oh Jesus…

Because if you do trust her, there’s
no reason in the world you can’t
keep every cent of that money.

Hadley abruptly jerks Andy to a stop right at the edge. In
fact, Andy’s past the edge, beyond his balance, shoetips
scraping the roof. The only thing between him and an ugly drop
to the concrete is Hadley’s grip on the front of his shirt.

You better start making sense.

Andy ends up explaining what Hadley can do and negotiates some beers for his fellow ‘coworkers’ in exchange for filling out the necessary forms. So now what can we extrapolate from this on Andy’s motivation? Well for starters most people would not have approached Hadley like Andy did, especially on a roof where ‘accidents’ could easily happen. But Andy could use two things. First he could use some favor with the guards; second he could use some favor with the other inmates.

This seems like a fine motivation for Andy; yet something seems wrong here. When Andy first walks up to Hadley, he insinuates that his wife is cheating on him. Now Andy is a pretty smart guy who would not do something like that on accident and here in-lies the problem that I have with this scene. I personally can’t find any motivation for Andy to do what he did there. If he wanted to die he could just jump off the roof; he would not insult Hadley and have him do it since Hadley hadn’t done anything to Andy. It makes no sense to me. Now granted it makes for a more dramatic scene, but when I was watching this movie it took a little of the magic out of it for me. Took away some of my suspension of belief.

To fix it so that the motivations of all characters are taken into consideration you could have Andy walk up to Hadley and just say, “I know how you can keep all of your money.” Then Hadley who is already in a rage could grab Andy by the shirt and push him over to the edge saying something like, “What are you trying to do? Get me in here wearing an number like you?” It’s not perfect but I think the scene would be a little more consistant as far as the motivation.

Anyways that’s enough for character motivation for now. My next entry will deal with some of the things I’ve learned while revising my latest novel.


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