Motivate the Players!

Because that’s what happens!

Too often in our early writing this becomes our excuse for what transpires scene to scene, chapter to chapter.  I believe it stems from a perception that a real geniuses don’t use rules or devices when creating their art.  Sometimes we imagine ourselves geniuses already because we were able to put an idea to paper.

The perception is false.  There may be some good writers who seem to have a knack for storytelling without thinking heavily over mechanics.  But the best writers have mastered them.

(Left) One of Picasso's early paintings. He mastered the basics before stepping out into his own style we're more familiar with (right).

Bill Gates didn’t suddenly become a computer genius overnight.  Neither did Picasso paint Guernica on his first attempt at painting.  (In fact, let me send you on a slight tangent reading this fabulous article on how it takes 10,000 hours to master something!)  It takes time and effort!

So too must we take the time to master the mechanics to craft a story so seamless everyone believes it took us no effort at all.

Back to the topic at hand….  While there are several devices to be discussed, in this post we’re sticking to CHARACTER MOTIVATION WITHIN A SCENE.

You have your protagonist.  You’ve thought him over carefully, given him virtues and vices, likes and dislikes, etc.  Now it’s time to throw him into a scene (which may or may not cover the whole chapter).  What will he do?  Who or what will he encounter?  What is his goal in this scene?

For me, finding motivation for the protagonist isn’t that difficult.  However, I found at times some chapters would seem flat, unbelievable, only mildly interesting, etc.  So what’s the prescription to remedy those floundering scenes?  Step into the scene as a different character–multiple times if there are multiple characters.

This circles back to the way I used to write my scenes: well, because it happened.  He yelled at her because that’s what happened.  She smashed the glass against the wall, because that’s what happened.  This is what I saw in my head.  And while that’s a good start, it’s not a great finish.

Often when I’m writing my 1st to 3rdish drafts, I don’t worry so much about mechanics as I do just getting the story out so I can polish it up.  But when the story is out it’s in its raw, unshaped form.  I’ve got the protagonist’s goals pretty clear, but how do the secondary characters measure up?

Wait!  Secondary characters need motivation?

Yes!  And to take it one step further, you should even have a small amount of motivation for the little side characters (the maid who’s there for 2 chapters and then we never see her again, etc.).

Back to secondary characters.  We may never directly learn their motivations, and they may never say them.  This is, after all, the protagonist’s story.  But I found it gave my scenes and chapters greater depth to take a few moments to walk through the scene in these secondary character’s shoes to see how they would react.  Take my example of the man yelling at the woman who smashes her glass against the wall:

The man is my protagonist.  He’s tired of her always being drunk.  He’s run out of patience.  He’s telling her exactly how he feels.  But she smashes a glass against the wall.  Great, another mess for him to clean up.

Switch to my secondary character, the woman.  He’s always nagging.  Doesn’t he understand how hard it’s been since she lost that job?  Alcohol’s the only thing taking the edge off.  What can she do to get his attention?  She’ll smash this glass they bought for their anniversary all those years ago.  Ha!  He doesn’t care about the glass, just like he could care less about their anniversary, their relationship.

In essence, you want to walk through a scene with most of your major players as if they were the protagonist.  Are they reacting in a way their character would react?  Are they angry when they should be defeated, etc.?

Even if your protagonist perceives the secondaries differently than their motivation, the point is when you know what they’re trying to accomplish it will come out in the writing.

To sum up, when working on character motivation within a scene:

  • Wear the shoes of all the major players within a scene.  Write down briefly what they’re hoping to accomplish, even if that is never directly stated by you in the novel.
  • Throw in some simple motivations for simple characters.
  • And remember, it’s just what happens is not good enough!
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