I’ve been stunned lately over the actions of some people I know. They’ve done things and made decisions that were dumb less than inspired. More than once I’ve turned to Mr. Petrol Head and asked, “What was she thinking?” In the time it takes him to shrug, I’ve mentally crafted up a list of possible motivations because, for me, trying to figure out why people act the way they do is as natural as breathing.
In fact, we don’t usually know what motivates friends and family. We don’t always understand our own motives either. But when it comes to creating characters in our books, we’d better know the why of their actions.
Dwight Swain, in his terrific book Creating Characters, says the thing we all seek, at our core, is happiness. Once our physical needs are satisfied, he believes happiness comes from a sense of self-worth or self-importance. To that I would add a sense of safety, and for some people that means maintaining the status quo and avoiding change at any cost. So figure out what makes your character happy, what gives their life meaning, what’s important to them. Then introduce a threat to their sense of self or their life circumstances, or dangle something they want in front of them. Give them a reason – a motive – for wanting to either seize the opportunity or avoid the threat. Make that motive deeply personal and unique to them. Add in conflict (something to prevent them from reaching their goal) and you have a page turner.
Well, it sounds easy but it’s actually a brain bender that can take days to figure out. For me, the gold standard in working through these issues is outlined in Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Tightly focusing on what a character wants, why they want it, and what’s preventing them from having it, gives any story shape, form and urgency. And those are all things we need in fiction.
One last suggestion – if you’re looking to real life for inspiration, be warned. Yes, people do crazy things and make bad decisions. Often those actions seem unmotivated. Or the motives are so deeply hidden you’d need an excavator to uncover them. But when it comes to fiction, make sure you understand why your characters are taking (or not taking) action, even if they remain blind to their own motives. And make sure your reader understands too.
Because fiction needs to make sense. Even if life doesn’t.