What’s your motivation?

I’ve been thinking a lot about character motivation lately. My turn is coming up soon for my local critique group, so I’ve been looking at the early chapters of Isto, Thanmir War‘s sequel. My buddy, Jim, pointed me to the John D. Brown archives on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website. Part 6 talks about Character Deservingness.

Thanks to Jim, whenever I read anything now, I think of the characters and wonder, “What’s your motivation?” Are they acting to save their own skin? Or are they doing it to protect others? Both make good stories. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

But thinking along this line made me realize that I want to redo chapter 2 of Isto, or at least the MC’s section of it. Currently, the character is running because he doesn’t frigging want to become what this other creature tells him he must become. He has his reasons. He’s afraid he’ll hurt the woman he loves if he does. So he runs and his approach is to stay one step ahead, let others protect him, and hopefully never have to face it.

He’s acting like a spoiled brat, sticking out his tongue from behind his mother’s skirts (except in this case he’s hiding behind his daughter). Ha, you didn’t get me this time.

After analyzing what I think my character’s motivation is, and what it should be, I’ve decided he’s not behaving heroically.

Darn you, Jim. See what you did? You made me start thinking, and you know that never ends well.

The character wants to protect the woman he loves. That hasn’t changed. But is he going to flee and pretend he can win that way? Or is he going to do something about it before the inevitable hits?

The scene rewrote itself in my mind. Yes, he still runs. And yes, his daughter still saves him, this time. But now, his motivation isn’t getting away. It’s finding the woman he loves and getting her to safety, before he’s forced to step into a role he doesn’t want, and potentially harming her in the process.

That seems less selfish to me. That, to me, makes him more deserving.

What do you think about character deservingness? Do you find yourself drawn to certain traits within characters? What makes you root for a character?

And to everyone who sent well wishes about my husband losing his job, thank you. I appreciate all of you.

Loni Townsend

About Loni Townsend

Wife. Mother. Writer. Ninja. Squirrel.

24 thoughts on “What’s your motivation?

  1. Interesting…I have a character who’s currently on the run because she doesn’t want to become what others are telling her she must become. Though she claims she’s doing it out of stubbornness and selfishness, I suspect there are some other motivations at play here to which she won’t admit.

    I tend to be drawn to characters who have a sense of loyalty and protectiveness toward their loved ones. Not necessarily overt protectiveness, but some of my favorite character moments are the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them type that speak volumes about the character. If that makes sense.

    Your change sounds like a good one.

  2. I’m reading a book right now where the character never allows herself to focus on the bad in her life, of which there’s an excess. It shows such strength, and I love it.

  3. I think what’s drawn me to a lot of characters I love is that they want to do the right thing, even though it’ll get them into trouble. I hadn’t thought about this much, but looking at my bookshelf and thinking about the characters I like the most, it seems to be a pretty common trait. The fact that the trouble they get into creates the plot of the book doesn’t hurt either. ^_^

    And now that I think about it, the characters in my WIP are like this too. Makes sense to me.

  4. Sounds like it prodded you to make the character and the story stronger.
    I like a character who is trying to do the right thing or the best. Even if neither goes according to plan.

  5. How would it work if the character started out being rather selfish and then changed as the story continued? That might be a good character arc for him.

    Glad you had your epiphany!

    • Ah, but would you want to chance starting with a character people don’t have sympathy for with the hopes that they will stick with the story and grow to like the character?

      • Yes! I love flawed, broken characters. A person can be basically good but still be selfish or a coward. They want to do the right thing but simply are not equipped to do so, and screw up majorly before they find themselves (if they do at all). Some people may not have sympathy for such a character, but I think it’s a lot more interesting.

      • As long as you give that character a “Save the cat” moment, along with other redeeming flaws, I think we can forgive a little selfishness.

  6. I’m struggling a bit with my first chapter because my MC is the kind of person who just does things because he can. I worry that people won’t stick around long enough to get to know him. So I’m trying to make him more sympathetic off the bat without actually changing who he is. It’s tricky.
    Sounds like you’ve made a good change!

  7. “LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking.”
    “A dangerous pastime.”
    “I know.”

    Look, I’m famous! Or is that infamous? Glad I could help by inserting that mind-worm.

    I remember reading the first few Honor Harrington books by David Weber. Honor’s motivation was always to do the right thing, no matter what the obstacles. As long as the author dropped her into situations where the right thing was hard to do (and sometimes it was hard to decide what the right thing was) interesting stories followed.

    The Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold were a little different. Miles had other motivations–get the girl, be as famous as his father, serve his country–but his flaw was he was willing to do the wrong thing to achieve them. It’s just a little white lie, nothing bad will happen. And it always goes wrong. And the little lie turns into the bigger lie, sweeping him along into more and more trouble. Lois says in an afterword her plot generator was “what’s the worst thing I can do to this guy this time?”

    One of my critique groups called me on a main character lacking motivation. “And why would he follow the homeless people back to where they live?” “And why would he agree to help rescue the sister from a Rave?” I’ve been stalled for a while figuring out answers to these kind of questions and building in the motivations from the beginning so the character will be consistent.

    Loni, you are so right. It’s important to have the characters motivated and to have that motivation be one the reader can sympathize with. And the best place to start is at the beginning.

  8. Yeah, that’s something I learned from a Writers Digest seminar a few years ago. What’s at stake? There has to be a personal stake for the character. It makes the chapters juicer too. 🙂 Recently I read Take Off Your Pants and Master Storytelling by Truby, and character is central. I do a lot more preplanning these days.

  9. I like characters who are basically good people but who are dealing with difficult things.

    I like the changes you made. They definitely would make me like your character more. 🙂

  10. Sounds like you’re on a good track! I always need something likable about a character to make me stick, especially if they’re looking out for others’ interests. And, too, if the character is funny, I’m w/them to the end! =)

  11. In my last WIP I had to rework one of my character’s motivations. I had to keep reminding her why she was doing something in the first place and keep her focus on that even when something got in her way. I hadn’t noticed she was straying until a beta reader pointed it out to me.

    I do like the characters who do things to save/protect others. Selfish characters are annoying!

  12. I always have to remember to “save the cat”!

  13. it’s hard, b/c I find if I don’t make my character likeable early on no one will stick with me, but in my new MS my character is kind of annoying in the beginning (but still likeable hopefully) but her friends make her do stuff she knows isn’t right…always finding that balance lol

  14. great thoughts and example! motivation definitely helps decide action or inaction. good thing to keep in mind.

    and thanks for your comments on my simulation cover!

  15. Finding the motivation is the key. I like characters who are motivated by a sense of honor. That really appeals to me.

  16. I don’t know. Does he have to behave heroically? I mean, can’t we love to hate him? Or just love him with all his flaws? Geez, I love Iron Man and, shit, what’s his motivation? He’s an arse. He can be likeable without the “right” motivation. Shh…listen. Your character will whisper it to you… 😉 No, I’m serious.

  17. Some of the most interesting characters can be purely selfish… I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but maybe he has second thoughts? Growth of a character through events can be good too.

  18. I like flawed characters who still have likable character traits. They also have something urgent to fulfill. Sometimes I torture my characters, especially in my dark YA, and readers have told me that’s really pulled them in to see whether the characters get out of the situations and learn important lessons.

  19. I have to get a character in the first few pages (at least throw me a bone, damnit 🙂 Once I’m hooked, do with me as you will… for at least 250 pages anyway 🙂

    PS: I missed last week, so adding my best wishes to Mr. T (and I’ve been a stay-at-home Dad for eight years and it’s actually a lot more fun than stressful (just always bring emergency snacks, emergency bottles of water and a change of clothes *wherever* you go 🙂

  20. It is an interesting concept. I like to play with it, though, by getting at least some of my characters to grow into their deservingness. 🙂

  21. I like characters who have their own code of honor or who at least have a core of goodness deep down. They may struggle to do the right thing, or maybe they’re terrified but they still try. I like your character revision. He does seem more heroic, and that would make me like him better.
    So sorry to hear about your husband’s job loss. I hope your new direction brings better things!

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