A collection of musings, articles and news about romance fiction.

Posts tagged “how to write

Writing 101: Motivating Your Character

Character motivation can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s where you get to ask, over and over, ‘but why?’ – and not get slapped for it. Creating motivation for your character is not only a great brainstorming exercise that encourages your muse, it’s also critical to developing a believable plot – or at least, a plot that your reader is prepared to believe. Without proper motivation that suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

As mentioned in a previous post on the Four W’s of Character Development, motivation is a fundamental aspect of building your character. Motivation is what drives your character, it’s the engine that gets that vehicle moving.

Motivation gives your character credibility, depth, and will create that emotional empathy with your reader.

So, it’s important. Don’t scrimp on the motivation. When you establish clear motivation for your character, s/he can literally get away with murder, in the eyes of your reader.

One way to create motivation out of the ether for your character (and we’ve mentioned already that there are so many different methods writers can use, what I suggest here is merely what works for me) is to drill down to their core belief system, and their internal and external needs.

Harking back to my Year 8 social studies lessons, needs are what MUST be met in order for you to 1) survive, and 2) grow/develop. To explore it further, we’ll look briefly at the psychological theory put forward by Abraham Maslow in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic of physiological needs must be met before one can focus on any higher level needs.

For example; a body needs food, water and shelter from the environment, and will pursue those needs until they are met. If they are not met, then the person may feel anxious, stressed – and deficient (hungry, thirsty, cold, wet, etc).

Once those basic needs are met, the individual can then focus on other needs, such as security – is the shelter safe from attack, are the members of my family/tribe/group safe, am I wounded/avoiding danger, etc.

At each stage when a need is met, the individual can build upon and lift their focus to the next stage of ‘need’, such as social, belonging, family, etc.

Maslow described our hierarchy of needs as:

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: those things needed for our physical survival.
  2. Safety: those things needed to make us feel secure, safe, comfortable.
  3. Love/belonging: those things needed for us to feel engaged, accepted, loved, welcomed, etc.
  4. Esteem: those things that make us feel respected, recognised, worthy, and reflected in our self-respect and self-esteem.
  5. Self-actualisation: the realisation of our full potential, the drive for accomplishment and self-improvement/self-mastery.

But how do we relate this to our writing, and specifically, to our character?

We’re going to start with what our character NEEDS.

Motivation is WHY your character thinks, feels, acts and reacts the way s/he does.

I’m going to break motivation into two basic tracks –

  1. Deepest Desire
  2. Fundamental Fear

Deepest Desire

Primary Motivation: what does your character want, seek, crave, desire? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character needs to feel safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list of twenty. Then make another list. You’ll find the first list are obvious needs and motivators. In the second list, there will be some things that may surprise you, intrigue you – and be a great, realistic, believable, compelling motivation for your character.

Newton’s Law of Motivation:

For every deep desire, there is an equal and opposite fundamental fear.

Each Deep Desire will have an equal, opposite and reactive Fundamental Fear if the desire (need) is not achieved.

Deep Desire vs Fundamental Fear

Fundamental Fear

Primary Motivation: what does your character dislike, fear, shun, hate, and is repulsed by? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character fears and prevents him/her from feeling safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list for each track.  Make another list. Write as many deep desires and fundamental fears you can think of for your character, and select what works for you.

Then create the backstory for your character – how they developed these deepest desires and fundamental fears – you now have motivation that adds depth to your character – and possibly to your plot (but that’s another post!).

Feel free to download a Motivation Worksheet.

Good luck, and get writing!


Writing A Book Is Like Soccer

I do not play soccer. In my family, that’s not just unusual, it’s almost a crime, and spawns many a long conversation on the supposed merits of the game at family gatherings.

There is something about the thrill of the game, the smell of the fresh air, the warmth of the sun on my head that I’m just not really enamoured with. Maybe because it’s a winter sport and I’m freezing my tush off watching kids run around a muddy pitch – then have to wash muddy clothes. Or maybe because ‘they’ schedule games close enough to sparrow’s fart on a Saturday morning when most folks would prefer to be reading the paper over a leisurely breakfast. Maybe.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to the game, or any sport. I think team sports are important, fitness is important, developing coordination skills is important. I enjoy watching my kids’ efforts, I enjoy cheering them on, regardless of who scores, and I love that they develop resilience. I occasionally kick a ball around, an activity that is both enjoyable and satisfyingly destructive if the wrong window gets in the way. But perhaps because I attend so many games and watch them with an enquiring eye, I’ve learned something.

Soccer is not so different from writing a book.

Why do people play any game? It comes down to the thrill of the competition, of pitting oneself against the odds to triumph, and the satisfaction of knowing you rule the soccer pitch, if only for one Saturday morning. There are the obvious benefits – fitness, hand-eye coordination, and the in-your-face fist pump when you score that goal (we’ll call this external motivation).

Then there are the less obvious benefits, the communication one learns and shares with playing in a team, working together, learning to offer assistance and accept aid, as well as the confidence and satisfaction one gets from being active. There is the joy of winning and the crushing disappointment of losing. We’ll call this internal motivation.

There may be other factors at play, also – your opposing team member may be the bully or ‘ace’ student at school and you finally have a chance to show them what’s what… Or maybe you do this because your father is a massive Bend It Like Beckham fan and you don’t want to disappoint him, or your friend does it, and it’s a way to get out of the house and hang with your mates, thus avoiding chores… either way, this motivation contributes to backstory, and having a compelling and relevant backstory makes any book interesting to read. Just like soccer, though, when information emerges over the course of a season, so too must backstory be threaded through the course of a novel, and not in one info dump (otherwise you’re that kid – or parent – on the sideline that everyone avoids talking to).

In a game of soccer, you have two opposing forces (teams). In writing a book, you generally have at least two opposing forces (a protagonist and an antagonist, or for a romance, your hero and heroine may be your opposing forces).

Either way, that’s conflict.

Each side has a clear objective. In soccer, the objective is to score a goal, and hopefully prevent the other team from scoring a goal. In writing, your character/s must have a clear goal, and in a good, compelling story, those goals will also be counter-productive.

When you have counter-productive goals that work directly against each other, that’s GOOD, STRONG conflict.

In reaching your clearly stated objective in soccer, you may run into another player (literally). In writing, your character must run into obstacles. For a number of reasons:

• Nobody wants to watch a boring, one-sided game, and nobody wants to read a boring, obvious book.

• When you really have to struggle to achieve that goal, victory so much sweeter and exhilarating.

• The more your character struggles, the more your sideline supporters (readers) cheer on that character.

• The more your character blocks or is blocked by an opponent, the more tense the game becomes.

In a soccer game, the ball is kicked back and forth, changing direction with a calculated strike or a careless bump. Just like the soccer ball, your plot bounces from one direction to another, based on the actions of your characters. Without this constant movement, or plot direction, the game is over, and spectators go home.

This constant movement of the ball creates tension in the spectator as well as the player – will they score this time? Will it get near the goal posts? Will that kid with the bleeding nose stop the ball with his face again?  In writing, the to-ing and fro-ing creates tension in the reader, as well as the character. And just like in a story, when one goal is scored, either by one team or the other, it raises the stakes – will the other team come back and equal the score, or possibly win? What is going to happen next? How will this game end?

And as with any book, in soccer there are peaks and lulls. Tension ramps up before a goal – and regardless of the resulting mini-climax, there is always the decline in tension, only to be ramped up again at the next goal opportunity, and then the next. Also, tension ramps up with any clash or conflict, until the ball is kicked out of that tussle and the immediate conflict is over – until the next time.

The entire team are your supporting characters, each acting independently, with consequences for each action. Each character has virtues and flaws, and these traits can contribute to conflict between characters on the same team – he’s a ball hog and won’t pass, or she doesn’t want to get hurt and won’t fully commit to a hustle. If you’re lucky, they’ll eventually get their act together and work cohesively in accomplishing that goal. And if you’re not lucky – well, I guess you’re not writing a Happy Ever After.

Your Goalie can be your hero – and your villain, depending on your perspective. If s/he is on your team, and they block a goal – Hero! If you’re on the other team – villain, and vice versa when the roles are reversed. Each team/character has an entrenched view that is constantly under challenge, and with each practice, each opportunity to develop that skill, there is character growth. Each team member has an opponent – this creates balance on the field, and good, strong competition. Just as your hero must have that opponent that challenges him/her.

And like soccer, it isn’t over until that whistle blows – there is always the chance that things can get better – or worse.

And when the game is over, hopefully those supporters will happily come back for your next book.