Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Author! What's My Motivation?

Disclaimer: The picture above is not David E. Sharp.

But it does show a guy with a winning author-like smile.
The kind of smile that says, "Hey, everybody!
I wrote a book. And it's pretty damn swell."

by David E. Sharp

Several years ago, I was an extra in the movie Friday Night Lights. I was familiar with the common trope of pretentious actors demanding their motivation from directors with waning patience. As an extra, however, I knew nothing of the story I was to help portray outside of what the director described before pointing cameras at me.

For the sake of my small roles, I didn't need to know how my "character" felt about his mother, what he ate for breakfast that morning, what the weather was like the day he was born, or the name of his first pet.  But I was very interested in knowing my motivation.

Motivation. It's not complicated.

As a writer, I'm astounded by the way we over-complicate the process of character development. Some quick Googling will provide you with a multitude of character development worksheets to help you define the people about whom you are writing.

We start with such items as eye color, height, weight, birthday, high school GPA, and identifying marks. We move into items of more inner substance like political views, spiritual beliefs, favorite fast food locations, and general attitude towards humanity. Lastly, we fill out entire backstories with so much detail, they could be a novels on their own.

Here's my dirty secret.

There's a whole lot of that stuff I don't even bother with. When I include a character's eye-color in my narrative, it's as much a surprise to me as to anyone. Hazel, huh? Boy, I didn't see that coming. If my characters have long lost siblings, I'll be the last to know. And if I ever took one of my characters out to lunch, they'd have to fill me in on what kinds of food they like, because I have no flipping idea.

None of that stuff is pertinent unless it influences the one crucial character trait that really counts. Motivation. What does a character want and why? Some motivations can change from scene to scene. Others are deep underlying desires that remain consistent throughout story. Regardless of how transitory a particular motivation is, they have this in common: They're indispensable if you want to tell a great story.

My motivation is that I don't have any motivation.

What, is that a crime?

Whenever I find my own writing flat, I first check whether I know what my character wants. As soon as I figure that out and adjust accordingly, the scenes mostly write themselves. Motivation propels a character through a story, and it connects your readers to your writing. Readers identify with your characters because they understand where they're coming from. Once you've got the motives in place, your job becomes much easier.

We can know everything about our characters. But if we don't know what they want, we don't know them. I admit, I do keep copious notes about my characters' personal facts and statistics. But, I don't start with that. I fill out my character notes as their personal details enter the story. There's a priority to characterization, and a hair style doesn’t provide a heartbeat. (Though, knowing my character's heart might help me determine how they'd do their hair.)

I realize this is an awkward time to bring this up.

But, why are we doing this again?

Do you ever get stuck in the minutia of characterization? Do you get frustrated you can't pin down your own imaginary people despite the fact you could recite their social security number? Maybe it's time to simplify. Motivation is canned momentum. Our characters don't need thirty pages of backstory. They just need a can-opener.

For more on writing character motivation, check out these resources:

Learn How to Motivate Your Characters - Writer's Digest

How to Find Your Character's Motivation - Well Storied

Character Motivation Examples: 7 Tips for Clear Motives - Now Novel

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