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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

He Had a Crappy Childhood: The Psychology of Character Motivation

Please welcome guest blogger Stacey Kade

When writing a story, “why” is a question you need to ask—and answer—over and over again. Everyone knows that stories, on the most basic level, are about people who do things. Or, perhaps, depending on the kind of story you’re writing, stories are about the events that happen to people and the choices those people make in reaction to said events. But either way, WHY—why those characters do what they do, why they make a particular choice—is the most important question in the world when it comes to keeping your readers involved in the story.

Whether they realize it or not, readers are always asking themselves: Why should I care about what happens to this character? It’s the author’s job to make sure readers understand the characters well enough to feel that connection, to empathize with their actions even if the readers don’t agree with the characters’ choices.

But we’ve all experienced it with a book—that moment when we stop caring about a character’s fate, or, worse yet, begin rooting for the character to fail because we’ve lost all sympathy and empathy for him/her. (*clears throat* Bella, I’m looking at you, babe. Edward? Really? Sorry, I’m Team Jacob over here. J)

One of the keys to maintaining that reader/character connection is by providing adequate and relatable motivation for your character’s actions. It’s like that old scenario about who is the greater criminal: the man who breaks into a pharmacy to steal drugs to sell them for cash or the man who breaks into a pharmacy to steal drugs to treat his sick child? Technically, it’s the same crime in both cases, but our sympathy for the second man’s motivation makes his crime seem more understandable and less “criminal.”

Motivation is the “M” layer in the GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict—the brilliant concept created by Debra Dixon) sandwich. In the GMC class I’ll be teaching at the beginning of August, we’ll go over each piece in more detail, but for the purposes of this post:

Goal: what a character wants

Motivation: why he/she wants it

Conflict: all the reasons and obstacles preventing him/her from having what he/she wants

And generally speaking, I’d say that the greater the conflict, the stronger the motivation must be. In other words, the more difficult the goal is to accomplish, the more we, as readers, need a strong reason for it to be necessary. Think about it: how badly do you need to change the channel before you get up to look for the lost remote? At least that’s the way it works around my house!

Let’s go back to the man stealing the medicine for his sick child. If the man can wait until Monday until the pharmacy is open to buy the medicine or if his child simply has a headache but he’s out of Tylenol, readers probably won’t accept his choice to break in. Unless, of course, the author has constructed him as a desperate, unhinged man determined to prove to his child that he is worthy of trust.

But if the child is going to die unless the father gets that medicine RIGHT NOW and he can’t possibly afford it, well, then we understand and empathize with him breaking in.

So, motivation is closely tied to what’s at stake. What will the character lose if he/she does not succeed? James Scott Bell hypothesizes in his book, Plot & Structure, that the “most compelling fiction has death hovering over the lead throughout.” But it’s not always physical death. There’s also psychological (total devastation) and professional (destruction of a most valued career) death, too.

I’ve found the following tip from Plot & Structure incredibly helpful:

“Define how your Lead will die, either physically, professionally, or psychologically, if she does not achieve her objective. If you can’t, ask yourself if the objective is truly crucial to the Lead’s well-being. Find a way to make it so important readers will understand why it must be achieved.”

Okay, so with all that in mind, how do you figure out a character’s motivation? For me, it all goes back to Psych 101. Humans (and vampires, werewolves, humanoid aliens, etc.) are a product of genetics (nature) and environment (nuture). So, if you want to know what motivates a particular character, you need to closely examine his or her life up to this point. What are his/her parents like? What kind of values do they display? Where does he/she live? Does he/she fit in or not?

In my new YA novel, The Ghost and the Goth, one of the main characters, Alona, is fanatical about appearances and obsessed with looking perfect. Yes, she’s shallow and mean at times—there’s no denying that—but when you learn that her home life is a hot mess and filled with elements outside of her control, it’s a little easier to see how her obsession with her appearance is her way of controlling at least one aspect of her life. When you can’t control anything but how you look, suddenly it’s very important to have just the right clothes, hairstyle, etc.

In the upcoming class on GMC, we’ll delve deeper into motivation as well as the other pieces of the GMC “sandwich,” but this short post will hopefully give you an idea of how using GMC can aid you in creating a stronger story.

As an award-winning corporate copywriter, Stacey Kade has written about everything from backhoe loaders to breast pumps. But she prefers to make things up instead. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Greg, and their three retired racing greyhounds, Joezooka (Joe), Tall Walker (Walker) and SheWearsThePants (Pansy). When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll likely find her parked in front of the television with her Roswell DVDs, staring rapturously at Jason Behr.

The Ghost and the Goth (Hyperion, June 2010) is her first YA novel.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict runs from August 1, 2010 through August 29, 2010

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