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Friday, September 26, 2008

Writing Tip: Fleshing out Character Motivation, Part I

When I was in college, I loved hanging out in front of the main student center and getting in some face time.  Sure there were other places to hang out, the fish bowl over at Uris Library, the different college quads or Libe Slope, but Willard Straight Hall was the place to be if you wanted to check out fraternity/sorority activities, protests, meet friends for lunch, people watch or just hang until your next class and find something of substance.    

Of course I'd go to the Straight at about the same time each day, so I'd usually get to observe the same people who were on a similar "hang out" schedule as I was. One of my favorite things to do was to make up stories about different people who caught me eye.  I'd wonder why they were in such a good mood one day.  Sad another.  Angry another.  And so it went on.  Some I became friends with if I was brave enough to start a conversation.  Others I admired from a distance or felt sorry for.  Or was glad I didn't know.

I've always been fascinated with the emotions and motivations of people and this, combined with my love of books and the time spent hanging out in front of the Straight helped shape my ideas of what made interesting, complex people on paper.  Now, I find myself lucky if I have time to watch a movie or television show.  Because rather than days and months of observing people, through the magic of cameras, we can have the self-gratification of watching how people react and act in a half-hour tv show, a one-hour tv series or reality based show, or a two-hour movie. Characters have never been so interesting and it is fascinating to see what makes them tick and how they show their emotions.   

All this careful observation helps me shape my characters when I'm writing, for I don't want a character in name only.  As you all know, that's boring.  I want a character that lives and breathes and makes the reader want to love him or hate her or be her friend or want to be him.  And while I don't want it to take forever when reading a book to know whether I want to know more about a character, as a writer, I need to be respectful about the time and patience that is required to create a character and make them believable.

As I've mentioned before, one of my critique buddies, PJ Hoover, shared an awesome plotting exercise which included character motivations.  Character motivations and plotting are so closely tied in together, that when you have a moment, I urge you to try this exercise.  I'm not a huge fan of writing exercises since I'd rather be in the forefront and focus on what I have to write, but I'm telling you, this exercise will save you tons of time.

In part of this exercise, you need to write out what the character needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses are.  Once you have it clear on paper what these are, every time you write a scene, you can make sure these three things drive every decision and conflict so it ensures the believability of your character and what needs to be done to create growth in your character.

Some people may disagree with me, but I'm a big believer that a lot of these character needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses come from the character's background--their family, friends, religion (if any), race, gender.  Understand the background, the backstory, because this is where the writer can add depth to the character.  Is your character one who will shrug off what was ingrained in him/her as a child and create a new future or one who will fall in line with what is expected?  Will your character believe they deserve better, sink in the muck or stay status quo? 

It doesn't mean all of the backstory needs to show up in your book.  

But, as a writer, you need to know and understand your character's backstory so you can create the evolution of your character's personality, motivations, weaknesses, and emotions. If you need to make sure certain things about your character are believable, it's probably a good place to put in a little backstory. Note the key word is little.  

Put the backstory in as a paragraph or two.  The reader doesn't need to know it all and most likely the reader won't want to know about the character's past until they care about the present.    

The easiest way to add in backstory is with a casual reference inserted into a paragraph. Another way writers add in backstory is by adding a few paragraphs or a lengthy exposition to pique the reader's interest.  Then, there is the flashback.  Since there are people more knowledgeable than I am about these sorts of things, I'll lead you to Through the Tollbooth's post of the best way to write a flashback.

Remember, if you want to create a complex character, delve into your character's backstory, to see how the needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses developed.  Use this to help plan your character's growth in your book.

Do you have any other suggestions?

Now, get back to work.

This is the third post in my Character Development series.


PJ Hoover said...

Vivian, I love the idea of taking the time to come up with a character's backstory to learn who that character is! I'm finding this more and more critical.
Great post!

Vivian said...

Glad you liked this post, PJ!

Beth Kephart said...

Vivian and PJ — I am thinking a lot about these things as I read galleys of Jayne Anne Phillips' new book, which is coming out in January. When I get my head around it, I will post. It's all such interesting stuff.

Vivian said...

Looking forward to reading your perspective on this.

sheila said...

I think this is why I still find Survivor interesting, despite it's increasing (and depressing) obsession with youth and endurance levels: watching people over a period of time, people who are thrown together in usually adverse situations, people who aren't always "nice" or altruistic. It fascinates me what some people will tell a camera ("I'm stuck with a bunch of retards and old people!"), even this far down the Survivor road, knowing that their most ill-advised comments MIGHT make prime time television.

My main problem with dining out revolves around this same fascination: I find it very hard not to eavesdrop and watch the people around me.

Patty P said...

The more I learn about writing, the more I understand that everything comes from character. Everything. But knowing this and doing this is two different matters. Understanding your character on this level is absolutely the hardest thing to do.
Thanks for the post! Now, back to writing!

Barrie said...

Eavesdrop, follow people around at stores, other sketchy behavior!

All kidding aside, I love listening to my kids and their friends.

Great post!

Bethanïe L'insolite said...

Very good post, I too want to write a childrens book - indeed, I never took myself for a writer until I one day had a idea and that sparked it all... I only wish I had started writing sooner and developed over time.

If you're interested my blog is: spectrumbooks.blogspot.com

Great post and links!