The past few weeks I’ve been talking about world building, and worlds and the part of novels revolving around the setting. I probably sound like a record so broken I can’t even repeat the words right.
Well, I’ve finally decided to replace the broken record with a new one (for now).
Every good story has a good setting. But it’s not the only thing a good story has. All good stories split their goodness between setting, plot, and characters. No combination of the three is the perfect combination, nor is any combination the only way to write a story. A novel without a good setting is rubbish, you can’t have a story without characters, and a novel without a plot is boring (even slice-of-life stories have some form of plot, even if it’s not identifiable).
As I’ve proven, you can spend weeks talking about each one of these aspects. I’d like to take this week as a chance to highlight one small part of one of these three. That is, I’d like to show you something I’ve learned is very important to readers, even if they can’t always tell when it’s there.
Motivation, and Why You Need it.
Last week, I said the two most powerful questions in building a world were how and why. The most commonly asked question is ‘how’, even when it comes to characters. “How will the character respond?” “How do they fight the evil villain who is obviously aiming way beyond their abilities?” Even the question “What do they look like?” is more related to “How?” than to “Why?”
I think “Why?” is just as important in characters as it is in the setting.
If you read reviews of books, the most common theme in negative reviews is that the characters are “flat” or “boring”. You’ll rarely see a comment complaining about how boring and unoriginal the story world is. People tend notice the characters more than any other part of the story, because the story is being told to them by the characters. If the author doesn’t do a good job in this, then the people will notice. And the critics are rarely kind (even if they start their review with “no offence intended” or “not to be inflammatory”).
So what keeps your characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, from getting these scalding reviews?
Many things contribute to a good character, but I want to focus on one thing: motivation.
Motivation, in short, is the “Why?” behind your character’s actions. It’s the part of the character the reader doesn’t always see, but can clearly tell when it’s missing.
This motivation doesn’t have to be logical. People are emotional beings, so often times why they do what they do makes no sense. They get so wrapped up in what they’re feeling they act before they think. Logical motivations will suffice, but it’s usually the emotional motivation that your reader will empathize with the most. They’ve been there.
Not only does motivation make your characters stronger, but it can be a powerful tool. If the motivation of your character is anger, then they’re more likely to do something idiotic and pay the price for it. Motivation through anger is commonly used to show how weak the hero is compared to the villain.
Some forms of motivation are more used than others, and more easily spotted. Revenge is, I think, the most common motivation for heroes and villains in the history of stories. People are fascinated by the idea of revenge, and so willingly submit to version after version of the same basic idea. Other forms of motivation can include greed, pride, desire of respect, acknowledgement, and anger. There is no motivation that has not already been done. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the saying goes.
When crafting characters, don’t just ask how, as why. And don’t always content yourself with the first answer. Keep prying, experimenting, and tweaking until you find one you like. Fewer critics will find reasons to shout “LAME” and throw tomatoes if you give them characters who react for a reason.