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Light a Fire Under Your Characters

July 8, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 8, 2013

When I suggest lighting a fire under your major characters, I’m not promoting charactricide. I’m suggesting that you give your characters motivation to act.

I’ve covered one type of character motivation before, motivation defined by psychologists that accounts for the way people behave in everyday encounters and situations, in the article The Psychology of Character.

But characters need specific motivation, motivation for engaging in behaviors no seemingly sane person would engage in: chasing down a serial killer, taking on a monster, standing between an enraged man and his equally enraged wife. Or maybe we’re not talking behaviors no one would try. Maybe we’re simply talking of actions that one character wouldn’t take on, wouldn’t want to engage in, because doing it, whatever it is, would be emotionally painful. Would be traumatic. Would be devastating.

Your main characters—I’m talking protagonist, antagonist, and sidekicks to both of them—have to have sufficient and credible reasons for their actions.

Remember that these characters are involved in something they’ve never done before. You’ve created a scenario they never imagined coming to pass or one they feared would come to pass or one they actively hoped they’d never see.

The protagonist, your main character, is probably reluctant to act. He’s facing people or situations he wants no part of. After all, if he’d wanted to act sooner, he would have. But he’s been avoiding just such involvement. He doesn’t want to get involved, either because he doesn’t want to stick his neck out or because he knows what getting involved would cost him. Or maybe he’s simply tired of being the rescuer again and again.

Your main character can have any number of reasons for not wanting to get involved (and those too need to be credible). But when you set events into motion that will ultimately ensnare him, his reasons for stepping in have to be greater still. Otherwise he wouldn’t be compelled to come out of retirement or risk his home or family or livelihood. He has to be forced out of his comfort zone or out of his cave or out of what passes for a safety buffer.

Compel is a good word for what’s needed to get him moving. He must be compelled to do what he’d vowed he’d never do. And you have to provide the compulsion.

You do that by tapping into what motivates him.

What churns inside of him? Is it loyalty? Compassion? A sense of duty? Does he feel an overwhelming desire to see greed defeated? See the underdog defended?  Whatever moves him, it must be a part of him that’s not easily ignored or brushed aside. His motivation is as integral to him as are his memories and his name.

Beyond knowing what moves a character, you also need to know who moves him. He might not care if his nemesis or competitor is threatened by a murderer, but he’d care very much if his new wife was targeted. He might have no concern if the company he was fired from faced a hostile takeover, yet if the entire industry he loved and had given his life to was at risk, he might well be motivated to action.

So when you start that fire under your character, keep in mind not only the what of motivation, but the who.

You have to know your characters, know what moves and drives them. You have to know their tipping points.

How much will they put up with? When will they break? What will they do when they break? What will keep them at their self-appointed task when they meet with challenges and setbacks and defeat? With multiple defeats? What keeps them going, doing something they’d never wanted to do in the first place, when others ridicule or threaten them for doing it. Doing the right thing doesn’t always put all the good guys on the same side; your main character could be attacked by allies once he takes a stand, once that stand-taking turns dangerous or deadly. So what keeps him motivated when not only the baddies are against him but his friends and family and those he respects turn against him as well?

A strong motivating force has to be churning inside him.

What I’m getting at here is that characters have to first have a reason to engage and then have to have a reason to remain engaged when the heat is turned up.

The challenge a character faces gets worse before it gets better (if it gets better). Do your characters have enough motivation to see them through? When story events start to pop, characters might need a second motivation to come along and aid the first, something to help them dig in.

This could be an even more intrinsic part of the character. He may be stubborn—no one will defeat me. He may have a need to always win. He may hear his father’s (or mother’s or first wife’s) voice declaring he or she knew he couldn’t do it, couldn’t follow through with what it takes. And his punch back at that voice might be what keeps him going.

He may need to prove something to himself, may need to show that his code is more than mere words, that he can be relied on even when success, for him, looks impossible.

And while characters need a motivator to get them involved and doing what they don’t want to do, they also need motivation to stay the course when you add fuel to the fire.

Characters have to have reasons to not quit.

Even your antagonist needs to have a reason to keep pursuing or attacking your protagonist in the midst of setbacks. He won’t always succeed—what keeps the antagonist on task? He needs a solid motivation, not only he’s a murderer, so he needs to murder. Give him a reason to act and keep acting.

Best buddies and sidekicks (on either side)  need reasons to keep hanging around when their friend’s involvement results in danger and threats and maybe death.

Quitting is easy; moving forward into danger isn’t natural. Characters need powerful reasons to repeatedly tempt danger (even emotional danger), to not take the easy way out. After all, no one would blame them. No one would say they hadn’t given it a shot. They could quit and still hold their heads up, couldn’t they?

The problem is, they can’t simply quit. Or they should think that they can’t. They would blame themselves for not giving it another shot. They would brand themselves as failures. Or, in terms of the antagonist, they wouldn’t get what they were after if they quit.

The promise of a reward could be a partial reason to keep going in the face of increased danger, but it isn’t one that stands up when the heat is high. Characters need motivation that arises from inside them, that’s deep-seated within. That defines them.

And you need to make sure that motivation is there and that there’s a reason for it.

Readers need to buy the rationale you give them for a character’s involvement, especially in something or with someone he said he’d never be involved with. You have to make the reason plausible and strong, able to withstand not only scrutiny by readers, but increased pressure from other characters and circumstances.

You have to make the reader believe your characters would do what you’re forcing them to do.

Questions to Ask to Get at Character Motivation 

What made your character the woman she is? What forces molded her? What incidents formed her perceptions?

What does she respect? What does she fear?

What embarrasses or shames her?

What does she feel she must always honor?

Who in her life does she admire and why? What does she admire?

Who does she try to emulate and why?

What actions of others would she never put up with? Why?

What kind of woman does she want to be? What’s holding her back from being that woman? What has she done or what is she doing that will lead to being that woman?

What other kind of person must she always be on guard against?

Who will she always defend?

Motivation must be Ongoing

Readers should see a character’s motivation in his common actions, not just in major decisions and reactions. Motivation should come through loud and clear as a reader follows a character through his days. Motivation can’t simply be relayed to readers through a bald statement—Monroe agreed to join the task force, even though he had retired last year when he was shot, because he had to be in on the take-down of the famed Bluestocking Killer. That is, this may be Monroe’s motivation, but you wouldn’t convey that motivation via a single sentence of telling. Instead you’d show his continued interest in the case, his rage and sorrow when another teen is killed, courtesy of Bluestocking,  his sleepless nights as he tries to ignore the ongoing case on the one hand and tries to solve it from his living room on the other.

Characters can have multiple motivations, maybe competing motivations. They should be torn between acting and not acting, needing to weigh the possible outcomes of both options.

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Motivation is often paired with goals when either is covered in a discussion of the fiction elements. We won’t touch on goals here other than to say characters in your stories need clear goals, otherwise your story is going nowhere in particular. As with motivation, goals should be clear.

While your characters need motivation to act and react, you don’t have to dwell too much on motivations of minor characters. So while you wouldn’t want them acting out of character, you don’t have to develop elaborate backgrounds and deep motivations for them. For minor characters, many times their motivations are simply to get out of the way or not get hurt or not allow a best friend to get hurt. They, like your main characters, can’t willy-nilly just do something—there must a logical reason (logical in their minds, at least) to act or react. But because the minor characters aren’t the focus of the story and their actions may not require deep thought and deliberation (you purposely don’t give them decisions that need deep deliberation), you won’t need to focus on their motivations.

But when it’s time to make big decisions in the face of opposition—whether external, internal, or both—major characters must have a realistic and authentic reason for what they decide. Something inside them has to tilt the scales toward a particular action and that something inside, that motivating power, must be made clear to the reader.

Show motivation through—

everyday events—Show what motivates a character through simple or everyday actions.

flashback—Show the incident that began a character’s links to a particular motivation and/or the incident that solidified it, that made him who he is.

back story—Use back story in dialogue or exposition to reveal motivation. What motivated a character before can motivate him again

dialogue—Reveal motivation through what a character says, even if he doesn’t mean to reveal what he ultimately reveals.

another character’s complaints or praise—Use the thoughts or dialogue of other characters to reveal reasons the main character responds as he does. They can be shocked, surprised, satisfied, or even alarmed.

What the writer must do is make sure motivation is sufficient to engage the major characters, especially protagonist and antagonist, and move them from inertia to action. They can be afraid, but they have to act. But they can’t act, not convincingly, unless you give them a reason to do so.

The motivation must make sense for the character. You have to make it fit character and story situation and genre. You have to make it believable. You have to make it long-lasting so the character has no excuse to quit before he solves the story problem or it defeats him.

Partial List of Motivations

This is a list that works for either protagonists and antagonists. While I’m listing  general terms here, you’ll make your motivation personal for your characters. So one character may act out of loyalty to family, one out of loyalty to country, another out of loyalty to a belief or mentor or code.

honor

loyalty

greed

guilt

sense of fairness

religious fervor

compulsion

dementia

keeping a promise

need to defend others

payback

need to best others (maybe someone in particular)

need to succeed

need to be the best

need to be acknowledged (or noticed or honored)

misguided sense of what’s right

need to restore balance (or order)

need to maintain peace

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Just from this list, you can see how motivations that are part of a character will move him to act, even when he doesn’t want to get involved. You should also be able to see how some of these motivations could compete, making a character’s life difficult when, for example, he has to choose between loyalty to his father and the need to defend his brother.

What’s most important is that you give your main characters sufficient and personal motivation to act when the inciting incident makes itself known. When a character can’t help but get involved, when he goes into action with reluctance on one side and a pressing need on the other, you’ve got that character tied in knots and ripe for an engaging story.

Motivate your characters. Give them reasons to engage.

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4 Responses to “Light a Fire Under Your Characters”

  1. Peter Pollak says:

    Super column. The best piece on character writing I’ve read in ages if not ever. You hit the nail on the head. From now on when I read I’ll be looking for those motivational clues, but more importantly your column helped me as a writer because it’s so easy to underplay motivation when it needs to be in the forefront, in the reader’s face. Thank you.

  2. Thank, Peter. I’m glad you found the article useful.

  3. Nick says:

    Excellent, thorough post! I follow 20 writing blogs, and I rarely see anything so comprehensive and useful! Thank you so much, it really helps!

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