Jenn is a writer and teacher in southwestern PA. She writes middle grade historicals with a twist of magical realism.

Taking a Cue on Character Motivation

Think theater for a few minutes. Whether you’ve been an audience member, a performer, or a director, you’ll probably agree that theater is pretty cool because it’s so alive—a story with breath and energy propelled forward in time, right before your eyes.

Where does that breath and energy come from? What’s driving the story?

Close your eyes; envision a stage. A big, fancy proscenium theater from a hundred years ago or a stark blackbox in some college building’s basement, doesn’t matter.

Put two actors on your stage. Paint them with some characterization: age, gender, family stuff, looks, likes. Give them a quick setting and given circumstances. Drama showcases conflict, so give your two characters a problem to solve.

Now what? Pretty boring if they just stand there looking at each other, right? Someone has to do something.

And then, the other one is going to react to what the first one did.

Action—the doing of things—pushes the story in a play. Here’s the secret to acting, and consequently, theater, in two parts:

Acting is doing. And acting is reacting.

The connection to writing, and the importance of these concepts to us as authors, are what I’d like to chat about in this post.

First, acting is doing. It isn’t “being” some mood or “feeling” some emotion—it’s all in the doing. The actions can be as consequential as stabbing the king, or as trivial as making lemonade. For an action to be natural, it has to be motivated. In theater, we say  “No movement without a purpose!” Every bit of motion and staging has to come from some good reason, or you shouldn’t do it.

This is true of your book, too.

Your characters shouldn’t make an aimless move. It might be a lovely sunset to walk a meadow, in which you elaborate upon the silky grasses waving and the swish of the heroine’s skirt. But is she there with a purpose that advances the plot? What’s her motivation for strolling said meadow?

If there’s no goal, she should probably forget the meadow and do something instead.

But maybe she’s out walking so that she can plan the theft of her neighbor Stan’s prize chickens, to sell them to have money to heal her sick child—then yes! Meadow loveliness makes a good juxtaposition for that complex motivation, while showing us three-dimensional characterization. She’s doing something, and look at everything the reader is being shown (instead of told).

To help ensure your scenes are based in natural motivations, let your characters always pursue the objective.  In theater, when asked “What’s your objective?”, we DON’T say “to be sad/mad/joyful/frightened.” Instead, we train actors to state objectives

1. in an infinitive action verb structure

                   and

2. in terms of another character

In your head, as you plot and draft, try phrasing your characters’ objectives this way to better know their motivations, and choose actions that allow them to directly pursue the objective. What’s the heroine’s objective in the above scene? “To scheme the theft of prize chickens from Stan.” To scheme is an action verb in the infinitive, and it’s stated in terms of another character (Stan).

What’s the main character’s objective for stabbing the king? To move himself up into King Duncan’s position of power. (Title character in Macbeth)

What’s the main character’s objective in making lemonade? To prove to her sister Lenny that she’s clear-minded enough for an everyday task. (Babe in Crimes of the Heart)

If you are stuck for ideas on getting from Point A in your book to Point B, try spring-boarding from motivation. What does Character X want? The answer is his/her objective. What is Character X going to do to get what he/she wants? He/she does this, this, and that. Now, write the scene that shows these actions.

The awesome part about focusing on an objective that impels natural action is that…

Acting is reacting, too. Actors on stage are trained to develop characters who listen, look, watch, and wait for what’s being said and done by the other character(s), and then—it’s time to react. And everything in the reaction will stem from that character’s motivations and how they’ve changed or strengthened in light of what the other character has said or done. Boom, new objective. Boom, new actions, new schemes, new tactics. Boom, action takes place…and then boom, it’s the first character’s turn to react.

It’s a constant climb on this ladder, all throughout a play…and a novel. She’s motivated to do this, so he’s motivated to do that. Tension increases, conflict mounts, and suspense and emotion heighten… in ways that progress naturally toward the end of the story.

Pocketing the Power-ups from Your Writing, Gratefully

manuscript-picI ran into an old friend at our town’s fall festival a few weeks ago. You might already be guessing how it went: how are you, how are the kids, what are you up to nowadays. Then, the writing question. “Hey, weren’t you going to write books or something?”

I nodded and smiled. “Still writing.”

Usually that’s the end of that, but this person looked like I’d announced tragic news about myself. “Oh, no. Jeez, I’m so sorry.”

Ummm. I laughed to show this was not a topic to be mourned. “No, it’s okay. I like writing.”

The person shook her head sympathetically. I turned to other subjects.

Years ago I might have been exasperated by that person’s reaction. But it’s good to be here now, in a place where I can say I like writing and really mean it. The trying is the thing, now.  Always with an eye toward the career goals, yes. But you can’t forget to find fulfillment in the trying. In the writing itself.

And what you take away from the writing itself can be reason for gratitude. It’s the time of year for giving thanks, so this is a bit of a think piece on what we as writers might count as blessings.

giphy-almost-famous

Depending on the individual, a writer these days might be grateful for these kinds of things:

  • helpful critique partners, supportive writing groups, and online contests;
  • how-to resources, online message boards of info, and writers’ sites and blogs;
  • awesome published writers and books, both in and out of your genre, both contemporary and classic;
  • the internet as a research tool; libraries of all types and sizes
  • the internet in general, especially for its use as a rapid-fire communication tool (I still remember the days—quite clearly—when email wasn’t a thing.)

I’m grateful for all of these. But when you dig a little deeper,

giphy-princess-and-frog

you might be even more grateful for what the writing itself gives you.

By “the writing,” I mean the work: the drafting, revising, editing, stopping, starting, sending, receiving, rejoicing, venting, rebelling, re-starting. The quitting and rebooting, because that’s part of trying too. The asking and looking and finding, and giving and taking. The planning and plotting and tossing and deleting. The writing and rewriting. And then, more writing; starting again.

I think the work of writing gives new or improved traits to every writer. These traits are like Power-ups as you cross a rough landscape in an epic journey game, and when effectively used, they impact every part of the writer’s identity. Best, when these traits grow strong, we in turn become stronger writers.

Not to mention, it can take a while to get agented and published…like, years. And years. And then more years to situate yourself into a real-deal writing career. This is where an understanding of and a gratitude for these traits is a balm for impatience and frustration. Don’t forget to pocket the Power-ups that the work of writing is leaving for you along the uneven terrain, and don’t be afraid to use them to get over obstacles. They’re only going to help you achieve.

Here’s a Top-Five-style list of examples of Power-up traits. Just examples—so many others!—but ones I’m gratefully learning over time.

giphy-high-fidelity

  1. An ability to take note of everyday Muses—the people, events, sights, and sounds that incite construction of whole plotlines in the heads of writers. (As an example, did you hear “Hallelujah” last week, with the passing of Leonard Cohen? What’s up with those lyrics? How many stories might have been inspired by those words last week alone?)
  2. A continually refreshed appreciation of time. Might it be one need that every writer has in common?
  3. Refined skills in plot analysis of books, film, theater, even music. Not just comprehending plot triangle points, but grasping the tone and texture of plot, too.
  4. A higher degree of empathy for others, from the practice of designing natural motivations and actions for the characters we create, who, often, are nothing like ourselves.
  5. The capacity for teaching others, whether you’ve been at the head of a classroom or not. Writers teach through theme. Themes can be subtle or whop-you-over-the-head, and the really amazing thing is, you’re probably never going to know how many people were affected to action or change from what you taught them in your writing.

Of course, every writer’s list of what he or she gratefully takes away from the writing is different! So even if you didn’t see something here that rings at least partly true to you, I hope the work of writing is gifting you with Power-ups for which you are grateful, and that you get some time this holiday season to reflect and recharge with them.