Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How to Write a Novel 3: Characters, Part II

Quote: “Motivation depends on desire and—like everything else in fiction—is most vividly conveyed through action. If a character’s desires are vague and abstract, the first part of your job will be to render them concrete and specific… As a fiction writer your task isn’t to tell us what characters want and therefore who they are, but to show us how far they are willing to go to get it, and by what means.”
~Noah Lukeman

Song playing: My Hero by the Foo Fighters

So, now you have an idea of who your main character or characters are. You’ve used character sheets, or just spent a lot of time thinking about them (or both, like me).

You’re good to go, right?

Not quite…

1. Motivation and Desire

Here is something vital to your story I feel that gets skipped over way too much: character motivation.

Motivation. Say it with me, mo-ti-vation.

Your character’s motivation is also linked to their Desire and the Crucible of the story. Remember how I said character and plot should support each other? Here’s where that comes in.

Your character should want something really, really badly, more than I want a Snickers, right now. That’s Desire. Your character will go through all sorts of stuff in order to get what they want. This goal can literally be what ever you want it to be, but it’s linked to the main conflict at hand. The character really wants something, whether it’s a Twinkie (a la Zombieland), a person, or a job, and someone or something is keeping them from getting it. A well executed character with a deep Desire will never come off as being passive. You’ve heard about needing Active instead of Passive characters, right? But no one really elaborates on the matter.

Well, I am elaborating on the matter.

A passive character is someone who stuff happens to. Picture your atypical damsel in distress. Princess Peach that Mario has to come and save every minute, the wimpy kid that always gets picked on and does nothing about it. These are passive people. They don’t do anything in the plot, they let things happen to them. For a main character, this is not a good idea. It’s not that you can’t have passive or weak characters in a story (I have pleeeeeeeeenty), but in regards to the plot, these people still need to want Something. Maybe your wimpy nerd wants to ace his math test. Maybe he pines for his English teacher. Whatever the case is, he wants something, and wants it badly. That is Desire. Desire fuels motivation.

Motivation, simply put, is the reason(s) why a character is doing what he is doing. A character’s Desire is usually part of their motivation, usually the main source of their motivation, but not all of it. A character’s motivation will also come from outside pressures, and expectations of them, either through family, society, themselves, or their community.

So, Detective Brewster from our hostage situation might have a lot of different motivations for being a cop in general, and staying at the bank scene specifically. Maybe Brewster’s dad was a cop, so he wanted to be one too. Maybe he was a wimpy math nerd, but filled out to Vin Diesel proportions between tenth and eleventh grade (boy were those bullies surprised!) and vowed to protect the weak from bullies. Maybe he liked the novelty of getting to walk around with a gun all day, and all the hot chicks he would pick up as a cop.

Because of his motivation and desire to be a good cop, when Brewster gets the call about the hostages in the bank, he doesn’t play sick, doesn’t pass it off on someone more experienced. Brewster goes to the crime scene, where people are wondering if someone so new to hostage negotiation should be the one to take this call. Now he’s motivated to stay there because his pride, and maybe his job is on the line, and because there are innocent people inside.

It’s important to remember that motivation mirrors the stakes being raised. As you increase the drama of the situation, motivation should go deeper and deeper, forcing the character to continue to act, despite the personal cost to them. If you have ever read a book or movie, and wondered why a cop doesn’t just walk away, or why the character puts themselves in danger all the time, or why they don’t just let the cops handle it, then that character isn’t properly motivated. And much worse than that, if the character isn’t properly motivation, it seems like they are just a pawn of the author, that they are doing things because the author said so. You might read a book, and go along with events just to see things through, but you won’t remember it later, or if you do, it’s not favorable. Poorly motivated characters piss me, and most readers, off quicker than a lot of other sins you could commit as an author, because it feels cheap. If you do nothing else as a writer (other than, you know, learn how to write), make sure your characters are properly motivated.

And this isn’t to say that your characters should be mentioning their motivations out loud to every hobo on the street, either (Cop: “Hello good sir, I am a cop because I have a chip on my shoulder the size of Montana!” Hobo: “Jolly good, jolly good. I am a bum because I was a war vet, and I have guilt for all the citizens I have killed, so I am doing penance by living a life of poverty.” They have British accents, too. I don’t know why). Most people have only a vague idea of why they do the things they do. Your characters might think, “I’ll show dad that I can be a better cop than him.” But unless they are really self aware, they aren’t going to think about their motivations in terms more precise than wanting to show their parents, or wanting to impress their coworkers and friends. You as the author should know exactly why the characters are doing what they are doing (Cindy has abandonment issues, and Frank is the first person to come along that made her feel loved, so she’s not going to just let his wife come between them).

But you don’t have to spell out a character’s motivation to get it across. Readers are very intelligent, as far as human beings go, so all you really have to do is SHOW why the character cares, and the reader will intuit the rest from there.

So, Brewster starts out relatively motivated to resolve the situation, but once he finds out that his sister is inside (thereby raising the stakes), his motivations increase. We aren’t wondering why Brewster doesn’t just evacuate with the rest of the pedestrians and half the police squad when the robbers reveal that they have the entire city block wired with enough explosives to bomb them all to the stratosphere, as a matter of fact, we EXPECT his resolve to fix the situation to increase. Now he can’t leave, his sister is inside, he’s made friends with one of the other hostages (your other main character), he HAS to make this right. All I had to say was “His sister is inside” and (probably, but if not, what, are you heartless? ;) ) you immediately understood that Brewster would see this situation to the end. There is no walking away for him.

And that, loyal minions, is when you have your crucible leap into the story, Superman cape a-flying.

2. The Crucible

A crucible is a vessel that you pour different ingredients (normally melted metal) into in order to melt them together under white hot heat. In fiction, it means a severe test. Essentially, the crucible is the “container” that holds your characters together as you continue to raise the stakes.

If your characters are sufficiently motivated, and the stakes are high enough, it will impossible for them to quit, no matter the cost. This situation is called the crucible.

Therefore, Motivation + Stakes = Crucible. This is a rough formula, but it works for most situations.

Some crucibles are:

*For a father and son, their crucible could be family. You can’t escape family, even if you move away and never talk to them. You still have the memory of them.

*For a poor office worker with a lecherous boss, her (or him if we reverse gender roles!) crucible is the job. She has to stay there because she can’t get paid as much elsewhere, and she has a sick son to feed.

*For a couple, their love could be the crucible tying them together.

It’s my theory that anything can become a crucible if the character is sufficiently motivated. In the above example of the office worker, I thought that money wasn’t a sufficient enough reason to subject yourself to harassment every day. It didn’t feel strong enough to be a crucible, so I adding in the bit about the sick son. I could go even further, as the stakes raise, and say she has a low self esteem, so she is keeping herself there because she doesn’t think she can get a job elsewhere (never underestimate the power of your character’s internal struggles. Internal motivation is some of the strongest motivation there is).

The crucible for our example is the hostage situation. The robbers can’t walk away, the cops can’t walk away, and the hostages certainly can’t walk away. Every single one of them is stuck together until something gives.

To me, a strong crucible also gives heavy implications to the outcome of the story, and instills that morbid curiosity in readers to see how it turns out. In the example with the hostage situation, you’re wondering what is going to happen, aren’t you? But you’re almost afraid to find out, right? Yeah, that’s a good, strong crucible hard at work. And for the record, I did not start out intentionally making this example into a strong crucible, it happened organically. You watched me throw out example after example that I literally made up off the top of my head as I went. Remember, it’s the character choices I made through these posts, and the personal stakes I used that makes this idea so compelling now. Let’s pretend that Brewster’s sister isn’t in the building, and all the hostages are his worse enemies.

Not so compelling now, is it?

Part of a good crucible is the implied ending. There doesn’t seem to be a way for this hostage situation to end well, right? Well, not and keep up the tension. I could have the robbers decide to change their minds and come out with their hands raised, all “Just kidding” and stuff. But that’s not a real ending, and we all know it. A good blend of characters, crucible, and conflict will make it so the reader can’t see how things are going to turn out favorably for the main characters, but they have to find out. And that’s a good thing. It keeps you from being predictable, and keeps the reader reading. As you raise the stakes, they are more and more invested in finding out how the characters claw their way out of this situation. It doesn’t happen every time, and it’s easier with such external examples as a hostage situations, but a plot works best when there’s the implied ending that if someone wins, the other person will automatically fail. If the robbers win, and blow the block to kingdom come, then Brewster fails. Period.

A good ending is more like an ultimatum.

A conflict will rise naturally if you have characters who are sufficiently motivation, in a tight crucible, and high stakes. And as you have probably noticed, our old friend Plot is trying to crash the Character party. This is a good thing, this back and forth between the two means we’re weaving something strong and interconnected.

Don’t think this conflict—crucible—motivation stuff works just for trashy thriller novels (Detective Brewster is appalled that you think his genre is trashy, by the way). There is conflict at the heart of every novel, even if it’s about a young woman’s coming of age in a new world. There’s actually a lot of conflict in that example. The conflict of her fears of the new world, her getting to know the customs, her missing home, I could go on and on.

Characters create conflict, and conflict breeds plot. Your plot should be the proving grounds for your character. If you are stumped as to what to do for your plot, make sure you have a fleshed out character, and then put them in situations that would elicit a strong reaction from them, either good or bad. Put them into situations that directly go against their inner natures. Character who is shy and mousey? Force them to give a speech. Character who is deathly afraid of water deeper than a glass? Stick them on a rickety boat. In the middle of a lake. Force them to stay there for a long time.

The fun thing about doing this to your character is it also serves as a test for their motivation. Your character would have to have strong motivation to give that speech or be on that boat, just as they would need strong motivation to put themselves in constant emotional and/or physical danger throughout your plot. If the character isn’t sufficiently motivated, he’s not giving that speech/getting on that boat. If he is well motivated, like say loss of a job if they don’t give the speech, or their daughter is on the other side of the lake, and there WAS no boat, well…they just might swim.

3. Wrapping things Up

I have barely scratched the surface of characters. I might post my shorter character sheet up here later, but I think this covers the gist of what you need to know in order to go forth into the adventure of novel writing.

There are other tidbits, like finding a picture of your character online, or finding their theme song, or watching a movie with someone who reminds you of your character, but again, it’s your little red wagon. Whatever works for you.

Tomorrow we’re going to be talking about Plot, and some different elements that make up a good one, like conflict, and suspense.

So, did anyone find that helpful? Confused? Let me know what you think!


  1. I don't tend to plan my characters out in such detail usually, but this post is really helping me with a few sticking points I've been having so thanks!From now on I'll question my characters' motivations far more sternly.

    Also, great blog overall. I haven't read all of the achives yet since I'm new to this whole scene, but let it be known that I WILL be following your posts, most avidly. :~)

  2. Yaaaay! I am so glad you found this helpful! That makes it worth the while!

    Yes, please. Take what points you find useful, and discard the rest. I don't imagine everyone will be able to do things exactly the same way I do. I don't even do things exactly the same way each time.