Friday, June 4, 2010

Determining Character Motivation

Okay, so I asked you yesterday to give me some character motivation. I'm paralyzed with fear that my second book will have the exact same motivation as the first. And can you say YAWN?

So I've been soul searching the past couple of days (really, like five, cuz I write all these posts on the weekend), and I turned to a post-it stuck to the computer next to me.

It's a quote from GLEE, believe it or not. I scrawled it out in red Sharpie as soon as Jesse spoke it. Because it's exactly the question you have to answer to determine your character's motivation.

When you lie awake at night, what's missing?

I wish I could answer that for Gunner right now. Le sigh. Soon, maybe. Soon.

What about you? How do you figure out your character's motivation?

PS. I'm up on the League of Extraordinary Writers today. And I'm donning a cape here...

66 comments:

laurapauling said...

It's hard to say. Totally depends on the story. Sometimes I have to make lists until I find the right one, sometimes I know right away, sometimes it's revealed part way through. :) Good luck.

laurapauling said...

It's hard to say. Totally depends on the story. Sometimes I have to make lists until I find the right one, sometimes I know right away, sometimes it's revealed part way through. :) Good luck.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I usually ask myself what the character wants. I just attended a workshop with Ruta Rimas, an editor at Harper Collins, at a SCBWI conference. She had us write a bit as if our characters had characteristics opposite of what we described them as and wanting the opposite of what we thought they wanted. Also she suggested asking ourselves what the character would never say, think, or do and making them do those things. Maybe trying some of that would help. It certainly changes things around.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I never know their motivation until I write a few scenes. The outlining and planning ahead thing has yet to work for me.

Great line from GLEE though. ;)

Jaydee Morgan said...

That is a great line!

I tend to focus on who they are and what they want before I add my plot details. If I can find their motivation to push them past the plot I start, I go for it. If not, it's back to the drawing board.

I'm not a lot of help, sorry.

Christine Fonseca said...

Freak! I wrote down te SAME line for the same reasons. Seriously - that is what I ask, like all the time.

Good luck with everything

Maribeth said...

Sometimes it comes by way of the character. Sometimes I agonize. And still other times someone/something gives it to me.
I try to avoid the agonize method. It's too frustrating!
Maribeth
Giggles and Guns

Lisa said...

That's a great line! I'm not big in outlining either, so I usually don't know until I'm least a chapter in.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

By asking questions.

Alison Eckel said...

Oooh I love that quote. What a great way to get into your character's head!

Falen said...

i think their motivations just kind of work their way to the surface when i'm pre-writing

Jen said...

HOLY CRAP I wrote down the same line when I heard it! I'm guessing we were thinking the same way at the time!

Character motivation for me isn't always spelled out. I wrote my entire first draft on motivation alone of my character then realized that the motivation was scattered and now I'm having to outline to find the true motivation of my character.

I too write my posts on weekends so all my writers block/thoughts/frsutrations have gone on way past the breaking point.

I have my copy of Eat,Pray,Love in the mail today and something tells me the motivation I need in life is about to hit me like a mack truck and this time I'll be ready to handle the inspiration! Look out world here I come!

Gina Leigh Maxwell said...

First, I'd like to thank you for doing the interview - avec cape - over at my blog today. I had a blast with you!

Second, I have no idea how to figure out character motivation. I'm a pantser myself. I just start writing and see where things lead.

Good luck with your motivation quest!

Alexandra Shostak said...

That's a tough question! I've actually been struggling with the motivation of my MC in my WIP, because she's really closed-off and recalcitrant about it. So she doesn't know her motivation. But I have to, and I have to show it in really subtle ways since she's not actually aware of what she wants (she thinks with all her heart she wants one thing, but that's not actually true.) Lol, it's a huge headache.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

By creating a past or past event that stays with him emotionally. It becomes the driving factor in his life, either consciously or subconsciously.

Terri Tiffany said...

I'm writing that question down--terrific way to really think about that.:) Thanks!

JEM said...

Ooo, good question. Sadly, I think the truest answer is that I need to work on determining character motivation. I think there are two camps - character motivated writing and plot motivated writing - and I am definitely in the latter cater(gory). So instead of determining character motivation, I determine story movement and build my character's motivations to match that movement. A little unconventional, I think, but we'll see how it serves me.
That was a great quote, even from a usually silly show.

Annette Lyon said...

Probably not the most helpful answer, but for me, the MC's motivation is usually what drives the entire story--what they fear and/or desire the most, which then sets the stage for the upcoming conflict. If you've got your conflict in place, the motivation should follow.

(Yeah, like I said--I'm WAAAY helpful.)

Carol Kilgore said...

I put everything in the crockpot and let it cook. Sometimes I know going in. Usually not.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

When I lie awake at night (like last night for 4 hours) what am I missing? Oh if only we didn't need sleep there's so much we could get done.

Okay, so I know the gal was being wistful. How about climbing Mt. Everest or swimming with the pink dolphins in the Amazon?

But seriously I'm beginning to wonder if I ought to just get up and do what I'm worrying about then crash during the day. :0)

catwoods said...

It seems to me that my characters come to me with an immediate conflict, unique voice and motivation for moving forward.

Of course, that could just be me fooling myself...

~cat

Talli Roland said...

Before I start writing, I answer the questions: What does this character want? And what is standing in their way - internal and external forces. It's made things a lot easier for me as I write!

Tere Kirkland said...

It may seem a little inorganic, but I usually know the characters' main motivations before I start writing.

At this point I'm thinking of the characters as sort of cogs in a machine, and what I need to have them do to make things happen.

That's when I try to figure out how to make those motivations believable, and that's when the characters come to life.

Matthew Rush said...

I already told you yesterday Elana - every great book has a protagonist with the same motivation: to save the world while looking scorchingly HAWT!

Southpaw said...

Motivation. I suppose that is the crux of the matter when it comes to creating characters, eh? The basic motivation would be to meet the basic human needs: shelter, food, etc. beyond that it gets tricky.

Heather said...

To figure out my character's motivation I look into their past. When I'm really having trouble I do one of those fun questionaires on them, the kind that ask all those personal questions, likes, dislikes, past, and all that. Works every time!

Krispy said...

Not really sure how I figure it out. It sort of just becomes clear as I get to know the character. Of course, some are chattier than others. That's a really great line from GLEE though, and a good thing to ponder when trying to sort your characters out. You can also ask, what is most important to this character? What is important to the society around this character, and how do the character's desires go with or against that?

You'll figure it out!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Excellent question. Much like your question I often try to excavate what makes my characters mad...that leads to motivation more times than not.

Oh Happy Weekend,
Wendy

Angie said...

I'm sure it'll come to you. I try to have one overall internal conflict for each character and that helps me determine their motivations for what they do and say.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Sadly, I'm one of those people who's main characters usually appear completely formed. The advantage is they show up complete with motivation and tell me all about it. The downside is they run the show and my life (and drive me more than a little crazy because they won't cooperate at ALL).

Um...yeah...my head is a scary place to be.

But I do have some other character development exercises I learned in film school that I use to explore the side characters that I invent to reign the main characters in. If you ever want to know about 'em, you know where to find me. :)

Veronica Barton-Dean said...

My best character motivation comes to me as I lie in bed drifting off for the night. It is this time that I often think about what I'll be writing the next day. Here the characters are real to me and I can see them playing out their lives for me like a movie.

G.~ said...

Good lord if I could figure that out I'd be rollin' in the dough right now.

My characters come to me in little flashes and it seems they change their minds an awful lot. If I could nail down a process in figuring out my characters motivation, hell, I'd be a happy camper.

Janet Johnson said...

Great question. I just go through the circumstances and let it come.

I'm a character writer, so usually their motivation is the first thing I know about them. Plot . . . now that's another story.

Karen Lange said...

Donning a cape? This I gotta see...
Have a great weekend:)

Jen Chandler said...

Motivation's tricksy. I have two WIPs that are at a stalemate because I have all this stuff going on but when it all comes back to the MC, I haven't figured out yet just WHY we should care about all that stuff and why the MC should be messing with it. It's a tough question.

Love the quote! Thanks for sharing!
Good luck with the new project :)

Happy Weekend,
Jen

Cindy said...

That's a great question. I've been able to determine this for the characters in my other books but it's been hard for my current WIP. I guess I try to think of what would be out of their grasp and how badly they want it. If they do really want it, I discover what they'd be motivated to go for--and exactly what they'll do to get it.

Jen Chandler said...

PS: Great interview (and great cape, might I add:))

Lydia Kang said...

A great question. And I think my new MC can answer that question! yay!

salarsenッ said...

This is going to sound nuts, but I do a couple of things.

I literally walk around the room, house, go outside and chat with myself. I put myself in the actual walking shoes of my (troubled) character. So what. The neighbors think I'm nuts. *Shrug*

I also...you're really gona' think I'm nuts now. I 'dress' my character in a different outfit in my head. I swear. They always start talking to me then. Really. Then I go from there.

If that doesn't work, at least I got a good laugh. ";-)

KM said...

Oh, the wisdom of "Glee." It can tell you anything about life. For instance, how much is too much hair gel? Answer: when you can grease a wok with it. (Thank you, Sue Sylvester!)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Good question - motivation. I suppose we all have it, right? ... I guess I should think about that more. Thanks for the reminder, it really is important!!

Krista said...

Ooh, Dan Wells just covered this in his latest blog post.
He said it's possible to revisit the hero's arc in a sequel, but up the stakes, make the character dig deeper into his own persona, make the risks steeper. Something like that. Go read it. :D

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Mostly, I'm with Falen on this one: the motivation just seems to come out of the story. But for me it's never all at once. So if I had a word of advice, it'd literally be a word: time. After some time, the different layers & motivators will just come out. Work on a different part of the book, maybe, and see what comes up. Good luck!

Danyelle Ferguson said...

I usually start with an idea that I turn into a very brief outline. Then I just start writing the character's thoughts. Not about anything specific at first, just writing to find her voice. Gradually (sometimes very quickly) her voice comes through with very specific thoughts on topics, her dreams, desires, goals. Pretty soon after that I know her motivation and how she'll react to the different conflicts she'll encounter in the book.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Oooh, I love that line. I'm going to have my characters answer that from now on. :D

Kara said...

I've been reading some about motivation for characters and doing some exercises that have helped. Like putting them in a situation that is expected, then turning the scene and making them do the exact opposite. Then I have to come up with a plausible reason why they were motivated to do what they did. Sometimes it can open wide some doors I hadn't even considered:) Hope that all makes sense!

Carolyn V. said...

My characters are motivated by whatever their goals are. They just gotta have those goals. =)

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

It's tricky, as this can be so situational, but general, I look at the character and ask what they would want most, given their situation, history, and personalities. that generally helps to determine their motivations and thus their actions.

Good luck! But I know you'll work this out because you are awesome, chickie.

Write Chick said...

It is for this very reason that I don't want to write a sequel. I'm terrified of the same thing. Someone above (can't remember who now) said something about increasing the motivation or the problem with each sequel. Hunger Games and Uglies series both did this. Good Luck! I wish I could give you more advice, but I haven't encountered a sequel yet.

Jemi Fraser said...

My characters seem to come pre-programmed with problems - so the motivation is getting out of them. It'll come to you!

Jeff King said...

If you character has grown so should the motivation. Look to a bigger problem, or maybe a flip the script… like what the char did last book has actually compromised the problem he/she is now facing. Maybe the solution of the last book actuly causes the problem now.

I let the story direct itself… so I can’t answer how I come up with motivation.
Good luck

PJ Hoover said...

Oooh, what a great question to answer!

Jan Markley said...

I'd examine their inner conflict to get at motivation!

Theresa Milstein said...

I try to know my character's background and personality enough that whatever situation I put him in, I'm able to picture how he'd react. If I get it wrong, a beta reader lets me know.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Man, the line I wrote down was "So you like show tunes. That doesn't make you gay - it makes you awful."

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Have a great weekend, Elana!

Jojomama said...

I seriously consider their psychology. Studying human behavior and psychology has helped me soooo much to find the motivation and patterns of behavior in characters. Does she have daddy issues? If so I know she will do this and this as a result...etc. Sadly, most of us are fairly textbook.
Eating disorder? Oh, emotional issues have been unexamined because of invalidating parent and or controling environment-- also leads to self destructive tendencies with opposite sex and insecurity in making decisions and weak sense of self etc.
There is always a new direction to go as the character's experiences and realizations evolve and change. It has been very helpful to examine my past and the teens around me in the context of their upbringing. You can almost call it just by seeing their choices.
Obviously I can blab on this all day. (= But I won't-- although it excites me.

Shelley Sly said...

Wow, that line is an excellent way to determine character motivation. I think the motivations of my MCs in my first two books were way similar, and after I realized this, I made sure my third MC's motivation was completely different before even starting the book. I'm going to write down that quote -- thanks!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

your second book will be greater than the first :)

Luce said...

I love that question, Elana.

And I love how the answer to the question can morph as a result of character arc. Jenny Crusie describes it as: "Act I: This is what I want. Act II: This is what I really want--my secret. Act III: This is what I REALLY want, now that I've passed the Point of No Return. Act IV: This is what I need at ANY cost." I like this progression, because I think it underscores how often people are unaware of or dishonest about what they really want, and it forces the protagonist to grow and know themselves better in order to get their happy ending.

And I think, from book to book, the specific goal that embodies the "what" will be different, even if thematically there are similarities, you know? And why the character wants what they want will differ too. As long as those things are unique (well, not totally unique; you know what I mean) to your new protagonist, I don't think you'll be re-writing your last book.

Good luck, and thanks for the great question!

JESSJORDAN said...

When I lay awake at night, what's missing is sleep. :) j/k (kinda)

That's a really great way to look at it. Who knew Glee could be so thought-provoking? :) I need to start making my characters answer that question.

Reana said...

I feel that you had better know the minds of your characters, get in their heads and poke around a little...the demons or motives that you have lurking about will jump out of the closet.
Or do the total opposite of what one would expect from your character, or do what Stephen King does kill..em all.
hahaha

MBW aka Olleymae said...

Great stuff. Now to figure out that missing part...

Deb said...

Wow...with some characters the question was an easy, split second answer. Others (who are MC's)? Not so much. Thanks for sharing this...

Bekah said...

What is their weakness and how do they get past it. What is their desire and do they get while surpassing said weakness both physical and menta

prashant said...

It's hard to say. Totally depends on the story.
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