Monday, January 6, 2014

The Philosophy of Writing: Finding the Right Motivation

Why do characters do things?

That's a simple question, right? Exactly, what makes a character tick, function, willfully interact in the world? I have so much trouble in this, and writing my first book has taught me a lot about how characters make decisions. If we assume that characters are living creatures, that they have organic desires and needs, what motivates them should integrate with these needs. Obviously, Willy Loman, from Death of a Salesman wanted recognition, to be a somebody, so all his actions in the play reflect these desires. Loman's life precipitates his actions, and his actions are a window into his desires.

So then, if you were working on a book, where do you start? Do we begin with the motivation, then cultivate the circumstances to build that motivation? Or, rather, do we allow the character more freedom of agency? Does the character obey the plot, and allow his motivations to grow out of the way the story progresses? The truth is that it can go either way.

Book rarely end in the way we originally planned. I can say this from experience. However I can also say that I still felt like I had control of where the story was going. For example, my book has a general plot involving the character leaving his home after a particular event drives him out. That is a plot point that is set in stone, and it will happen. So here the character is at the mercy of the plot. His moods and attitudes are now subject his experiences. The protagonist's motivations, what he wanted grew out of the plot.

So now, here is where it gets tricky. What if you need the character to do something? That's a problem right? This is imposing our will onto another character. Such an action will break a story, or make an entire books worth of character development a complete waste of time. That being said, doing it right, making a character do something isn't impossible, you just need to create the right motivation.

When I put a character in a room, and I tell the character to walk two steps forward, the character will do that. Also, if I tell the character to eat something, the character will also obey. Both of these actions are simple commands that do not threaten the character's autonomy. What if I told the character to cry, however? That's a lot more difficult. The character needs a reason to cry. Forming a general plot around the character may instigate an episode of crying, but this is no guarantee. At a specific moment, if the character must cry, there must be motivation. They key to getting it (the motivation) is planting narrative seeds that will sprout into moments of proper motivation. In my book for instance, my protagonist is illiterate up to a certain point. He's gone his whole life not being able to read, and isn't particularly bothered by it. If I let the story continue, he wouldn't have needed a reason still. But I need him to "want" to read, so at particular points I introduce the prospects of reading to him, and how that might be advantageous. Slowly over time, I am building the motivation in my character to want this. How successful I am is what determines my skill level as a writer.

Try it out! Next week, I want to give you textual examples of this in action. Stay tuned...


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