Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Motivation--the Foundation of Compelling Characters

As writers we need to know our characters inside and out. We need to know what makes them tick. It's called goal, motivation, and conflict. Today Ane Mulligan talks about the importance of one aspect of that knowledge--motivations. -- Sandy

Ane: For those who have read Debra Dixon's book GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict, I have come to the conclusion that Motivation is the most important. Motivation engages us. We can relate to character motivations. They form the foundation of characters that live on in our minds after the story ends.

Motivation leads to character arc. It’s the WHY of GMC. The Goal is the WHAT the character wants. Motivation is the WHY he wants it. If we provide strong motivation, our readers will follow our characters anywhere, through anything.

A character can behave reprehensibly, in a way we would normally condemn, but if the motivation is strong enough, we'll forgive the character and cheer him on. Motivation is what makes us empathize with the character. If it's important enough, the character won't be able to back away from it when the conflict gets rough.

Finding the deep, core motivation is imperative for great characters. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised when you discover that core motivation. It isn't always nice.

Too often in Christian fiction, our characters are too nice. If the core motivation is selfishness, but the character isn’t really a selfish person, allow that side to be seen in small ways. It makes a good character great. It makes them complex. We want our characters to be complex—deep—real, because that creates the basis for the character arc.

When I have a new protagonist, I use a Character Interview (CI). Mine contains way more than physical characteristics. I want to discover the lie she believes about herself and her deepest, darkest secret. I want to know her back-story. I want to know her parents’ back-story.  Her grandparents’ back-story.

Why? Because the way people are raised affects their view of themselves and their worldview. If I don’t know my character’s ancestors, I can’t know my character.

After I get a clue or two into the character from the CI, I write a stream-of-consciousness back-story. I’m always amazed at the secrets that come out when writing these. For one manuscript I’m working on, I went back four generations. I discovered why my characters acted the way they did. In other words, I found their core motivation.

I just finished teaching the ACFW online course on this subject, and I know I got under the skin of a few students by continually asking, “Why?” Too often, we list a goal—a what—as the motivation. You have to keep asking yourself why they want it, until you get down to the core motivation. Most of the time, it’s a single word—a basic, human emotion, a desire, a need. 

Once you know that, your character comes alive. You understand why she makes the decisions she does and why she reacts the way she does. Now her goals make sense. And now she’s on her way to becoming unforgettable.

Have you spent time asking your characters why? What answer has surprised you the most in doing so? Did you find your character had a motive that reflected badly on themselves? Share your thoughts about character motivation.


Sr. Editor of the award-winning literary site, Novel Rocket, Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, she's worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that's a fancy name for a lobbyist), business manager, drama director and writer. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). A three-time Genesis finalist, Ane is a published playwright and columnist. She resides in Suwanee, GA, with her artist husband and two very large dogs.