Writing Excuses 6.2: Internal Motivations

If you have to ask yourself “what’s my motivation?” when you’re sitting down to write, this isn’t the podcast for you. We’re talking about character motivation in this cast.

Mary breaks it down into different aspects: what the character wants, and how that is expressed on the page. From there the analysis proceeds. We talk about how to do it, how others have done it, and what some of the pitfalls are.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis, narrated by Katherine Kellgren, with Connie Willis reading the introduction. These two books have been nominated for the 2011 Best Novel Hugo.

Writing Prompt: Come up with a character motivation, and then an action that character must take which runs counter to that motivation.

That Distant Hum Ten Minutes In: Somebody decided to run the vacuum upstairs. It was a busy weekend at Chez Sanderson.

Liner Notes: Mary Robinette Kowal schooled us all back in Season Three with this discussion of puppetry.

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41 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.2: Internal Motivations”

  1. Is there some sort of balance we should strive for between thoughts and reported thoughts?

    It seems that using thoughts is often better, but as you mentioned in the cast we shouldn’t use it too often, I wonder how it should be balanced; would it vary depending on what needs to be relayed to the reader, or is there a standard way of balancing it?

  2. Brandon, the best thing you taught me about writing characters from your English 318 class was what you said about motivations transcending mere desires; that internal motivations are all about why your character wants what they want, not just the fact that they want something.

    Personally, I’ve found that the best way to work out internal motivations is to connect it with backstory. Orson Scott Card, in his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, mentions how virtually all SF adventure fiction involves characters in an adolescent stage of their lives (not totally dependent on adults, yet not settled down with others dependent on them) and never take the time to explore where those characters came from, ie what sort of a family background they have, what are the major formative events from their childhood, etc.

    Once I started giving my characters a backstory that included their upbringing, my characters suddenly became real to me on a level that I hadn’t experienced up to that point in my amateur career. Their internal motivations became as clear as day, and instead of feeling schizophrenic they started driving my stories in ways that I hadn’t anticipated and yet made so much more sense than what I had planned. It was awesome.

    So yeah, I’d say that the best way to figure out internal motivations, for me at least, is to figure out the character’s backstory. That, and to keep in mind that motivations aren’t just what your characters want, but why they want it.

  3. Yippee Skippee, the Evil!

    I mean, Yippee Skippee, another episode!

    This one helps me see I’m on the right track with my main character, I think. Her major, personal motivation is that she wants the freedom to make her own choices, run her own life, pick her own paths… but first she has to go do the hereditary quest thing. So she gets the ilusion of the freedom she craves, because she knows she ultimately must do what she is pledged to do.

    And even after that, she’s not sure they’ll let her go off on her own.

    Now I just have to write it.

  4. I’m with you, Jace.

    I’m editing a book right now that is about a man at war with himself because he wants to fight a conspiracy but he also wants to rescue his unrequited love from a cyborg. There are a lot of things that create friction in my main character’s thought process, so I have to make sure I’m doing things in such a way where his plight is at the forefront of the story.

    Fine podcast overall. It’s great to be able to check something out once a week and know if I’m doing something right or need to rethink what I’m doing.

  5. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

    Now we’re done.

    I agree that the ‘cast on puppetry was increadibly informative. As a bonus, it also helped me develop my acting! Just got done with Henry V; now back to the page.

  6. I always like Mary Robinette’s advice, although I worry that she’s essentially become the Scrappy Doo of Writing Excuses. Next, you’ll be having all sorts of crazy guest hosts–like Batman, Phyllis Diller, and the Harlem Globetrotters.

  7. I used to not include internalization/thoughts, not because of cinema, but because I knew I wanted “fast pacing” and new writers are always told that description and lots of thoughts makes for “slow pacing.” It took me a while to figure out that the right descriptions and the right thoughts are essential to a smooth pace and a great story. I still remember reading the Vivenna-is-introspective chapter towards the end of Warbreaker, loving it, then trying to pull it apart to see how it works. It was a rewarding chapter to read, and it didn’t make the pace feel “slow” at all.

  8. I hate it when a book goes into a character’s thoughts too much. My mind just glosses over it. Maybe I’ve watched too much cable. I should read more noir.

  9. I had a hard time using character thoughts when I first started writing because I assumed everyone would understand what my characters wanted. This was especially true because my beginning characters frequently had the same motivations as every other character in that trope…ie, defeat the big bad overlord because they offed their family. I didn’t realize until much later how complexity in the internal monologue can distinguish characters, ie, Alessan of Tigana is completely different from Mistborn’s Vin, even if they’re both working to overthrow a tyrant.

  10. I can understand not going into a character’s thoughts too much, but I agree it’s kind of a balancing act. It’s fair to say that if you have too much of an element, it can prove overwhelming for a particular piece. I do include thoughts in my pieces for accent to a given situation, like a gut reaction to something major or a revelation that the character reflects upon at a given time.

    I’ve seen instances where some have overused thoughts – it feels either like the writer’s telling you too much or it disrupts the pacing, as was mentioned in the ‘cast.

    I really enjoyed this episode a lot. And I’m really glad that Mary’s a part of the team now. Yay!

  11. When we say “schizophrenic” are we meaning that characters come across as having hallucinations, or are we referring to Dissociative identity disorder, where the character has multiple personalities?

  12. What about motivations that are used for dramatic tension, thus not quite 100% revealed?

    Where the character won’t give up what their exact motivations are, but the reader absolutely wants to know…. and they seem to change, but conflict with what the reader is given. i.e. that type of unreliable narrator.

    I’m playing with such a thing for a book I’m writing for myself. The apparent motivation of the character is that the character wants to be a maid and be left alone. But as the story progresses, the cracks of this lie to the reader kind of evolve and the more she insists it, the more it’s apparent it’s a big fat lie. This adds dramatic tension… (Entirely unpublishable, BTW, because the story format is non-Western Hemisphere and would bug publishers to no end that *this* is not how you write a story.)

    I also do that with another book where the characters seem really open, but because it’s years after the event, they simply don’t talk about their central motivation anymore. I leave the reader to piece it together on what transpired back then… which I’ll admit I borrowed from Eastern culture and I like aesthetically v. the lay it on the table everything up front and only character growth rather than character discovery. (Miyazaki is *great* for character discovery where the viewer learns more about the character, though the character already knew that. v. the more American convention that a character contains a trait already, doesn’t know it and discovers it.)

    Just a thought.

  13. @ Alan, You say that like it’s a bad thing. Getting Batman on Writing Excuses would be a MAJOR coup.

    Two episodes into the new season, and already a callback to season 3. I put it in my playlist right after this one and it works really well. Adding Mary to the team is going to be great things. I think I will re-listen to all the WE, MRK episodes at work tonight. Yea.
    Don’t worry guys, I still love you too, but today, it’s all about Mary.

    Now to go mess with my characters heads by bashing some motivations together/against each other. Joy.

  14. @Alan: I’m not sure I understand the “Scrappy Doo” comment. Other than the fact that Scrappy was added late in the series, there’s no similarity. He was annoying, Mary is awesome.

    Don’t take the “fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart” thing for false humility. While all four of us will admit to having huge egos (we write and expect people to read it) and valuable expertise (people claim to have been helped by our podcasts) we will also confess to being terribly insecure about the things we don’t know. Worse, there are things we don’t even know we don’t know — unknown unknowns.

    Mary came in to help with that. She sees our existing blind-spots, and appreciates that we’re able to see some of hers. Theoretically. I haven’t found any yet, and it’s not doing anything for my existing sense of insecurity.

    In short: she’s not Scrappy Doo. She’s more like the Fourth Horseperson of the Apocalypse, late to the party, and wondering how the Other Three Horsepeople were even getting by.

  15. Mary is earth to the guys’ fire, air, and water; west to their north, south, and east; cello to their 1st violin, 2nd violin, and viola; and phlegm to their sanguine, choler, and melancholy.

  16. Why are talking about Mary like she’s not in the room? room being figurative for internet since she can get online and post…

  17. I suppose we could chalk it up to Mary’s ethereal nature…she’s here but not, she is everywhere…etc.

    So what I read from the ‘cast that internal motivations and how much of that information the reader is privy to us based on viewpoint (Third person limited, etc) correct?

    Then by extension wouldn’t Third Person – Omniscient be the best view for getting across deep character growth?

  18. We will now have a moment of silence for Ed.

    Ok, moving on. I think I see where the ‘Scrappy Doo’ comment comes from. Some people, I think, viewed Scrappy’s addition to the Scooby cartoons as some kind of attempt to rejuvenate interest. New and interesting character! And he’s a puppy, so he’s a kid like the viewers! And he beats up monsters! Wow!

    Something like that.

    I don’t think that’s why Mary’s here. The guys like her, they work well with her, and also what Howard said. ‘Nuff said.

    Besides, Writing Excuses started as ‘fantasy writer, sci-fi writer author, horror writer’. Now they have something new, Regency-style fantasy, which contrasts a little with Brandon’s high-fantasy style and doesn’t overlap at all with Dan or Howard. She is, if I may say so, an added spice the recipe was missing.

    More than that, from reading bits of her work I’m confidet she brings as much expertise and humor to the table as anyone.

    She’s also been extraordinarily kind in responding to my tweets and stuff, even when I was a twit. So I agree she’s awesome.

    And to Mary: Thank you. You rock. Please stay.

  19. On reflection, I need to work on the distinction between ‘hang a lampshade’ and ‘undermine’.

  20. Thank you one and all.

    Prompt completed.

    Brandon, having just finished WoK, my mind immediately jumped to your numerous flashbacks you did with Kaladin. Every time I hit upon one I’d have a twang of impatience, but it was thoroughly justified in the climax. Now I actually appreciate it.

  21. Howard, are you saying that being compared to phlegm could ever not be a compliment? What kind of crazy anti-phlegm world do you live in?

  22. I first apologies for any spelling or gramatical errors. English is not my native language.

    I discovered this interesting podcast a few weeks ago and have now listened to all the the episodes. I have loved them all, or at least most of them.

    I also discovered Jordans/Sandersons WOT series through this podcast and is now on book 7 (so far just Jordan). This comment is about that book series. Now you’re warned.

    In book 4 and 5 there are intersting internal motivational shifts which are very different in how fast they change and how obvious they are.

    One is Nynaeves motivational change from “use power against Moriaine” to ” use power to heal people”.
    Another is Asmodeans change from “Help the dark one win and rule the world” to “I must survive this by helping my former enemy”.

    The first one happens gradually over a couple of books and as a reader you don’t notice the change until it’s complete. The second happens almost instantly.

    The second is fairly easy to accomplish i’d imagine, but the first one is a mark of genius to be so subtle.

    Oh, and I like Mary and her contribution to both this and the previous podcasts.

  23. FYI, Jack Bickham gives a great discussion of this his book _Writing and Selling Your Novel_ chapter 6 “Stimulus And Response”.

  24. Wonderful podcast, but I disagree about David Tennant’s ending. I think his monologue showed so much feeling and so many thoughts that it would have been a shame to cut it, especially because it was his last big scene. I think the ten second look came in handy as he said “I don’t want to go” and burst into flame. Maybe it’s because I’m a giant fan, but I think they did that ending phenomenally.

  25. Mary hit the nail on the head when she pointed to over-emphasis of the “Show, don’t tell” mantra. Writing my first stories, I focused so much on writing active, verb-oriented prose that my characters’ thoughts and feelings about what was going on were non-existent. To put forth a character’s thought was to “tell” in my mind. Of course, without the character’s feelings and thoughts in there, the stories felt distant, merely watching characters that you don’t know and thus don’t really care about.

    “Show, don’t tell” is an important guide, but new writers like me must learn to not take it too far and kill the very thing readers read for and writers write for: identification with characters.

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