I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time now, gathering up notes and so on, and decided to take the plunge this morning and finally get into it. Though I have been writing a bit lately on motivation in terms of motivating ourselves to sit down and write, this series is about motivating our characters.
A strong character has a strong motivation. People do things for reasons. Those reasons may be simple, clear, forthright. Those motivations may be subconscious, selfish, even evil. But we are all—all real people—driven by certain things and those drives affect our behavior, our outlook on the world, our personal connections and relationships—everything, really.
And because we want our characters, even in fantasy and science fiction, to feel real, well motivated characters are vital to a successful work of fiction.
Octavia Butler, an author I admire greatly, made this note for herself:
We should all have this note next to our desks. This is the goal, ultimately, of any author of fiction—and any author of non-fiction, for that matter.
But how do we make people (our readers) FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!
This is where motivation comes in—at least as a starting point.
What readers want out of every work of fiction is a shared experience. And not, alas, an experience shared with you, but an experience shared with your characters. J.K. Rowling seems like a nice lady, but her readers love Harry. They didn’t go on J.K.’s journey of writing the book, they went on Harry’s journey of going to wizard school.
Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances, wrote in her 1941 article “Magazine Chief Warns Against Loss of Originality”:
The writer’s job is to create people who live and move—real folks in whose existence the reader can believe. Therefore the characters in a good western story won’t be so very different from those in any other kind except outwardly. They may do different things but they will be moved by the same motives, react to the same stimuli. Cowboys and prospectors and ranchers’ daughters surely love and hate and fear and dare much as any other people. You may, because you are writing of frontier country, heighten their daring, accent their courage, but these characteristics will be aroused in them by the same springs of action that activate any other group of people.
Motivation—what drives your characters into and through the story—is not all you need to make your readers FEEL! FEEL! FEEL! but it is a major component. In this series, we’ll look at some basic concepts around motivation, what motivates us, what we respond to as humans, and talk about how we can extend these ideas into the imagined lives of our characters.
Starting with some basics, a dictionary definition of motivation: “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.”
Pretty simple on the surface, but this works in two ways, usually simultaneously. In his book Unstoppable Confidence, Kent Sayre asks: “Are you moving toward your goals or are you moving away from your problems?”
Aaron Sorkin, in a Hollywood Reporter Writer Roundtable, boiled it down to two things:
“Intention and obstacle: Cling to that like a lifeboat. Somebody wants something, something’s standing in their way. Intention and obstacle. Once you have that, that’s the drive shaft of the car.”
Motivation is the beginning of intent: I intend to write this blog post motivated by a desire to help people write better. I’m happy to report that there’s no particular obstacle in my way, which is why the details of me sitting down to write this wouldn’t make a good story. Again, motivation starts your characters, drives them forward or prevents them from driving forward, and plot is the series of obstacles placed in their way.
Okay, so then what motivates people? Is it stuff we tend to fixate on in fantasy and other genre writing? Revenge, power, etc.? Or is there at least a slightly deeper level to this?
Bear with me while I invoke Tony Robbins just after he got in some hot water by publicly misunderstanding the intent—dare I say it: the motivations of the #MeToo movement.
As with anyone, myself included, advice can and should come from a variety of sources and none of us always gets it right. Tony Robbins got it wrong about #MeToo and has fallen behind on a few other subjects in the past. Though I’ve listened to some of his CDs and read a few of his books I’ve always found myself editing out some of his advice—ignoring his pitch for diet drinks and other sales add-ons, identifying some incorrect information like a Yale study on goal setting that doesn’t actually exist. Let’s not focus on what he got wrong, though, when there are some valuable things he got right.
In his program Personal Power Tony Robbins said:
“The differences in people are not their needs, we all have the same needs, the difference in people are merely the vehicles we’ve learned to try to fulfill them.”
Translate that as “needs” equals “motivation,” and “vehicles to try to fulfill them” equals what Sorkin called “intent.”
We all need food and water, we all need to feel safe (which he should have kept in mind re: #MeToo), we all need to breathe, we all need to sleep… simple basics like that. But beyond those physical needs, we have a common pattern of emotional needs, and these emotional needs, for good or ill, motivate us to do almost everything we do beyond taking care of our basic physical survival. Here, based on the work of others before him, are Tony Robbins’s six human needs:
In this series, we’ll break down each one and talk about how that could motivate a character in a story.
See you next week.