Writing Excuses 13.18: Naturally Revealing Character Motivation
Key points: Character motivation is hard. Just announcing it doesn’t feel natural. Often, we don’t know what our motivation is, or we lie to ourselves about it. Also, consider scene objective versus super objective, goal in the moment and overarching goal. Ask why. Think about how the plot and the character connect to each other, why does this character want to solve this problem? Separate the goal, what the character wants to achieve, and the stake, what does failure mean. Use the Hollywood formula to set up a protagonist who wants something, and then introduce the conflict of the story. Separate events, the King died, and stories, the queen died of grief, where motivation, or why, is the key to the story. Use free indirect speech, aka internal monologue, to reveal the character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivation in third person as part of the narration. Use focus and breath, what the character’s looking at and how long they are spending on things. When you see a sign for milkshakes, but you say, “I’m thirsty,” it isn’t always clear to everyone else what you want. Consider goals and plans to achieve them, or goals and actions. If your character wants something, they need to act as if they are really trying to get it. When the character’s motivation changes, lead the reader along so they can see the transformation. Make sure the reader knows why characters are doing what they are doing. Beware the sense of disbelief, violating the reader’s sense of the world. Use free indirect speech, and unpacking transitions and transformations to let the reader know why the character is doing things.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 18.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Naturally Revealing Character Motivation.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m in a hurry.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, we want to talk about character motivation.
[Brandon] This is, in my opinion, the thing that new writers get wrong the most.
[Brandon] When my students, who are good writers, are turning in books during class and I’m giving them feedback, it’s often, “Can’t understand why the character is doing this.” “Motivations are off.” “You are having someone move the plot without explaining why this character would move the plot.” One of the hardest things, I guess, to figure out as a new writer is character motivation. It’s so essential.
[Howard] I did it wrong as we were introducing the episode. First time around, 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart. And I said it very quickly and kind of stepped on Dan’s line. That’s me in a hurry. Second time around, I said, “And I’m in a hurry.” Which is not the right way to do it. Because that’s just announcing it, it doesn’t feel natural. You want a character to look like they’re in a hurry? Their speech is clipped, they’re cutting people off, and you get this sense, at about the same time as the other characters in the scene do, you get this sense that this person has something else they want. Like maybe dinner, because I’m hungry.
[Mary] I narrated a book once where the main character thought, “I’m so in love with him,” and walked into the room and said, “I’m so in love with you.” I’m like, “That’s not… Really? What a surprise!” I think one of the things that will happen to a new writer is that they will be like, “Oh, I need a character motivation.” They forget how much… How often we lie to ourselves about what our motivation is. There’s a thing that I talk about a lot called objective and super-objective, which is a term out of theater. People are always in theater going, “What’s my motivation?” It’s the joke among actors. But it’s real, too. So the super-objective is kind of the overall driving thing that drives your character. While the objective is their immediate goal in a scene. So a lot of times, people only give their character this very superficial objective, like, “I would like to take over the world.” Well, okay, but why?
[Brandon] Right. We talked about that in the villains podcast. Why?
[Mary] Why do you want to take over the world? Is it to prove a point? Is it because… Like, the example that I often use is that there was a point where I was really trying to lose weight. Because my super-objective was to be admired, so I tried to do a good job on the podcast, I like to look nice, and I finally realized that my problem was just that my clothes didn’t fit, and that my objective was the wrong objective. It’s like you just buy new clothes. So I think that that’s one thing that will happen is that people will pick a motivation for their character that is just one dimensional. Then their character will just announce it all the time.
[Howard] You can flip that completely on its head and have a character who really wants a new car, and it’s because they want to be loved, and they feel like the car is going to help them get the girl or get the guy. Then the twist in the story is their realization that I didn’t want the car. I want to be loved, I’m going about this wrong. Now you have the discovery that your objective is not working in the service of your super-objective, is… Well, you can hang a dozen stories on that.
[Dan] So, one of the things that I had to learn that I was always getting wrong, so maybe this is something that other new writers can… Have the same trouble. Is, I would always take a lot of time to figure out what is my story about, what’s the plot going to be? Then, who is the character, what do they want, all this stuff. But rarely ever thought about how those two were going to connect to each other. Until I started writing John Cleaver. I talked about this a few months ago, that figuring out how the plot and the character are going to interact… Yes, this character is in this story because that’s what I chose, but also why? Why does this character in particular want to solve this problem? What is going to drive her to go on this quest? All of these questions, I think, is a level deeper than just figuring out who the character is.
[Mary] The other thing, I think, that I see a lot of times, and I realize we’re still talking about kind of the framework for the motivation before we start talking about how to express it, is… Because I think if you don’t understand the framework, you can’t express it. The other thing that I see a lot of people do is that they will make the goal and the stake the same thing. So, the goal is what the character is trying to achieve, the stake is what failure looks like for them. These are sometimes n… Usually not the same thing. Like, I’m trying to get a car, that’s the goal. If your stake is if I fail at this, I don’t get the car, that’s the same thing. That’s the same thing. If I fail, my family is disappointed in me. Then those two things can intersect with each other in… Failure is my family is disappointed. That’s what’s at stake. So if you’ve got those two things playing against each other, and most of us have multiples… Then it gives your character, honestly, something to think about. It gives them an internal conflict, and I think that when we are trying to reveal character motivation, just having them go, “I want this car,” there’s no conflict there. I want this car, but I can’t have this car…
[Dan] One of the things that I use a lot for this specific problem is actually Hollywood formula. Because of the way Hollywood formula sets you up with a protagonist who wants something, and you introduce that before you introduce the conflict of the story itself. So often then, the conflict becomes the means of that. I need to support my family and provide for them. That’s my overarching goal. But then, this opportunity to win a car in a contest shows up, and so that’s my immediate objective. So that’s the conflict that comes up, but it’s all driven by that earlier goal.
[Howard] Then, the discovery as part of the contest that there are things I can do in conjunction with this fame and part of participating in this, that have nothing to do with the car, but people are liking me for who I am, and wow, this maybe feels a little better. Now it’s an after school special on ABC in the 1980s.
[Brandon] The classic kind of really pithy way of putting some of this that I always heard in writing classes is the story of the King died. That’s an event. The queen died of grief. That’s a story. The idea is the story is about the why as much or more than the actual event. The motivation is that why. Digging into that.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Howard, you’re going to tell us about the Ten Cent Plague.
[Howard] Yup. This is one of my favorite recent reads. It’s by David Hajdu. It’s called The Ten Cent Plague. It is the story of comics in America. The… It talks about the technological… In the 1920s, the technological revolution that suddenly made comic books a thing, and how an amateur group of creators broke into this market and created a pop-culture movement that so upset the status quo that there were book burnings during the 1940s in the United States. It’s fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. If you are a writer who’s interested in writing things that are important and in writing things that are awesome, learning about these artists is worth learning about, whether or not you draw pictures. The Ten Cent Plague by David, and I’m going to spell the name this time, H. A. J. D. U. I got it on Audible, had it narrated, and it’s awesome.
[Brandon] Great. That sounds really, really cool.
[Brandon] Let me…
[Howard] That’s… Honestly, halfway through, I was terrified.
[Howard] I was actually frightened because I didn’t know the names of some of these people and I did not know what was going to become of them.
[Brandon] Let me take, as we often do in the second half of the podcast, and try and dig at the how. How are we going to reveal character motivation? We’ve talked about how a lot of times the character doesn’t know yet what their even… Their own motivation is. How do you reveal what the character doesn’t even know yet? You may not even know it yet, if you’re a discovery writer.
[Mary] So, my favorite tool is free indirect speech. Popularized by Jane Austen. Sometimes people will call this the internal monologue. But this is not the character necessarily talking to themselves. It is the motivation expressing itself through the narration. This is where… In free indirect speech, what you do is you take the character’s thoughts, their feelings, and you put it directly into the text in third person as part of the narration.
[Brandon] So this is not the you shift into first person and think, “Man, I want something to eat today.” It is…
[Mary] Man, he wanted something to eat today. The thing that it does, mechanically, as opposed to shifting into first person is it makes the… It ties all of the narration into the character’s motivations. Which means that then you can start directing the reader’s attention by what the character’s looking at and how long they’re lingering on things. Focus and breath, puppetry episode way back in season six.
[Howard] Season three.
[Mary] Season three? Oh, wow. Right, I joined…
[Brandon] [garbled you joined in season 3]
[Dan] Season three. Yeah.
[Mary] Sorry. Eh, back in the day…
[Howard] Hollywood formula was season six. Howard’s old.
[Mary] Yeah. Anyway, point being that by doing this it allows you to reveal the motivation in a more layered manner. Whereas when you switch over into first person, what happens then is that the narration and the character’s thoughts become two different entities. Or two different experiences for the reader. So what will happen is that those moments, that character motivation moment, will pop out and stand on its own, and it will feel like nothing has built up to it. So it’s one of… It can… Doing that can absolutely remove any ambiguity, and there are times when you want to do it. But I think that that slow reveal, the understanding of what’s going on, is something that you can do if you’re unpacking it all the way through in the narration through free indirect speech.
[Howard] I was in a seminar… 25 years ago, where they were talking about good communications skills, and one of the examples that was listed… Or that was given was you’re looking out the car window and you see a sign that says milkshakes 99¢. You say to the person driving the car, “I’m thirsty.” We do that all the time, where we don’t reveal our motivations. We realize I really want the milkshake, but what comes out of our mouth is I’m thirsty. The response from the driver is often, “Oh. Yeah, I’m kind of thirsty, too. We’ll get something to drink when we get home.” Now you’re having a fight and you don’t even know why. I love that example, because it lets me look at things that the characters are looking at and have them say something that is directly motivated by it, but is not necessarily clear to everyone else.
[Mary] We do that all the time.
[Dan] I was going to say, we did a thing… I wish I’d kept this up longer, but we did anything with my kids for a while where once a week, we would sit them down and ask them what their goals were in life, and then see if we could help… Come up with a plan to achieve them. When they’re little, their goals are probably not… They don’t know what they want to be yet, unless it’s a ballerina or an astronaut.
[Mary] Good goals.
[Dan] Which are great goals. What was fascinating to me is the complete disconnect that they had, and that, since I’ve been looking at this, I think even a lot of adults have between goals and actions, and making sure that you put that into your characters. That if your character wants something, then they need to act like they actually want that, and not just wait for the plot to drive them toward it.
[Brandon] I was going to say, we hit very hard the idea that sometimes characters don’t know what they want. A lot of times, they do. It is perfectly all right to have a character whose motivation is established in the opening scene and its consistent for the entire story. A lot of great stories are done that way. But, yeah. This goes back to the kind of protagonist sort of thing that we talked about. Establish that motivation, and then have them try to do things to get what they want. Maybe what they want will change. That’s… I think that’s a lot of the trick with my new students is as the character’s motivation is shifting, the reader… Or the author isn’t leading us along. A lot of times, the character goes through a transformation when they realize what they wanted at the beginning of the story is much smaller than what now they want. They originally want to do well in school, and now they realize that monsters are going to destroy the planet, and school doesn’t matter anymore, or whatever. Things like this. We… As an author, your job is to kind of lead along so that you can see the character letting go of that in that specific instance. Whatever it is, as they’re shifting… Their motivations are shifting, letting that drive the plot instead of the opposite, letting the plot drive what the characters need to say. Readers notice that. It’s one of the things that… The uncanny valley sort of stuff that readers notice and can’t always put their finger on why the character feels wrong. They’ll say, “The character feels flat.” It’s not the character’s flat, it’s that character’s motives, motivations haven’t been established for why they’re doing what they’re doing.
[Mary] I’m going to jump off of that and one of the… This is more of a diagnostic tool than a writing tool. When you have written something and you’re getting that feedback of the character feels flat or I didn’t believe the character would do that, what you’ve triggered in the reader, a sense of disbelief, you have violated their sense of the world. So you have to treat it… If you think about when readers’ disbeliefs are triggered with a physical thing. I didn’t believe they would survive a fall from a 13 story building. You’re triggering the same sort of thing in your reader, where you’re violating their sense of the world. You have to tackle it the same way. Which is by going back through and layering in all of the clues that you need to layer in to get them to that point. So… A lot of times, it is using very mechanical tools, like the free indirect speech, or if it’s already in there, sometimes you’ve put the stuff in there and the readers are skimming past it. Sometimes it is as simple as inserting paragraphs to make sure that the important thing is the last line of a paragraph, or the last line of a scene or a chapter.
[Brandon] I’m working on a revision right now where I got that response from an early reader. The response was this character you established at the beginning of the story is very kind of… She’s an intern, she’s a clerical intern, who’s now in the middle of a disaster. I’m like of course, you’re going to go and kind of be heroic. It’s that type of story. I didn’t transition her between I’m just here to be saved to I am the person who is going to try to actually do something about this.
[Dan] Now, a fantastic example of that transition is Hans Solo in episode four. He wants to get paid, and that’s all he wants. For most of the story. Even when they are in the Death Star, the ship has been captured and they’ve managed to escape the ship, but now they’re just in a room. He’s like, “Screw the princess, let’s just get out of here.” He is only willing to go along with the plan because Obi-Wan Kenobi is essentially holding his ship hostage. I will get the ship unlocked, I’ll turn off the tractor beam, but only if you help with this. So they keep his monetary motivations incredibly consistent throughout, while also showing what is going to eventually become friendships that will make him change.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and call it here. Did you have one more thing, Mary?
[Mary] Oh, I was just going to quickly say, that the thing is, when you’ve got something like that, is you need to unpack it. That’s one of the things that a lot of times with something like this, that we think a single line of free indirect speech will do it. It won’t. You actually have to… With a change like that, you actually have to unpack it and let it fill an entire moment.
[Brandon] Dan, you have our homework.
[Dan] Yes. That actually is our homework. Take something that… Two options here. We’re going to play around with free indirect speech. Number one is take a motivation or a character thing and put it into free indirect speech. Alternatively, if you’ve already done that, take something that is in free indirect speech, and then pull it out and unpack it and turn it into a longer thing and explore that motivation more.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re all now motivated to go write.