Thursday, September 22, 2011

What’s My Motivation?

I’ve been thinking about character motivation. I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the notion that believable characters act in consistent, understandable ways. That it is not good for a story when the reader says, “I don’t believe that character would ever do that.”

In life, however, we rarely know why anyone does anything. People don’t actually expound freely on their motivations, their decision making process. And some decisions can seem pretty strange.

It has also be noted that it can be good for a story when characters do surprising things.  So if characters can and should do the unexpected and if it is realistic to never truly know the motivations of others, it follows that the author shouldn’t really worry too much about characters behaving consistently, right?

Wrong, unfortunately. It would be a lot easier if the characters could always just do whatever the plot requires, but no. One of the things we do in life, perhaps as a survival mechanism, is try to get to know people. One of the pleasures of reading or watching movies and TV is using our getting-to-know muscles on fictitious people.

Authors have been known to speak about characters taking on lives of their own, making choices and taking actions outside the plot laid out for them. This occurs when the author has taken enough time in contemplation of the character to get to know them enough that certain choices seem, well, out of character.

And what’s really magic is when, through the character’s perspective, the author comes to choices and decisions that would never even have occurred to him or her otherwise.

When your characters want to jump a certain way, let them. Don’t force them in a mold to fit the plot. Because if their actions seem off to you, their creator, how can you sell them to an audience?

A NOTE ABOUT THE BLOG: I write this blog on the bus to work. Due to a (happy!) change in my employment circumstance, I will not be bussing to work much longer. I’m not sure what this will do to how often I blog. We will have to see what works out.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Working Backwards

In the last three installments, I played around with building a story out of various pieces – a setting here, a conflict there, couple of characters – with the intention of showing how none of the individual pieces were enough to be story by themselves.

Today I’d like to take another approach.  If the point of art is to express something, to make your audience feel, then why not start at the point? In stories this is usually done through conflicts, through the risks the characters take and the decisions they face.

There are some concepts (regardless of how they are presented – scenes, images, conflicts, etc.) that we can expect most people to respond to strongly. Children in peril, for example. There are other concepts that, human individuality being what it is, that different people will respond to differently.  Say a cold glass of iced tea. It’s great if the weather is hot and you happen to like tea.

You want to include concepts in your narrative that people will respond to. But it most stories aren’t all children in peril, all the time. But the less universal the interest point, the more you have to build around it.  If you want to focus on that glass of ice tea, for example, you should probably also provide the hot day (a setting element) and someone who could really use a cup of tea (a character element) and possibly even some additional background.

What we are doing here is starting with an interest point and then working backwards to insert the elements that help sell that interest to the reader. All stories are contrivance and all stories contain conflict but it is never good for your conflict to feel contrived to the reader.

So if you have a really good, interesting conflict, perhaps somewhere in between my child is in danger! and I could sure use some iced tea, the next step is to construct the narrative elements that lead naturally to that conflict so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just been dropped into the story like a falling piano in a cartoon.

Sure, there are events in life that feel that sudden to the people they impact, but remember that your characters are only one element of your story.  A bomb going off can be every bit as stunning as it should be to your protagonist, even if your readers saw the bomb planted by the antagonist several pages ago. And better still if we’ve spent enough time with the villain to believe he or she really would resort to explosives.

All of this is really a way of saying you can work backwards, if you like. Start with a scene you’d like to have and then consider everything that is required to make the scene work, building the elements from the needs of the story instead of drawing the story from the elements.

I have a tendency to work in both directions. But as I have said before and will no doubt say again, every author is different, so play around with the tools and find what works for you. No one cares what tools you use to fix the sink – they care if the sink works.