Why, Oh Why? Writing Diagnostics VIII

Remember GALAXY QUEST?  Remember when Jason is confronting the rock monster and calling for help?

Sir Alexander Dane:  You’re just going to have to figure out what it wants.  What is its motivation?

Jason Nesmith:  It’s a rock monster.  It doesn’t have motivation.

Sir Alexander Dane:  See, that’s your problem, Jason.  You were never serious about the craft.

That dialogue never fails to make me laugh.  As a writer, it’s my job to always consider the motivation behind any character.  I should hope that were I really facing a monster, I wouldn’t be quite as pedantic as Alexander, but when I pit my characters against monsters — or even against each other — I had better know why.

Sometimes, when we’re working hard to create a viable story premise, and we’re busy juggling action, a goal-oriented protagonist, lots of conflict, an oppositional antagonist, and a series of cause-and-effect events leading to a showdown while trying to be original, we may forget a little detail called character motivation.

There’s so much else to deal with.  Does it really matter? 

I’m afraid so. 

But I’m writing scenes.  I have conflict.  The actions are speaking plainly.

They can.  They will, for a while.  But you can only dodge and fake your way along to a certain point.

There always comes a time in the story, a crucial scene, a big confrontation, a turning point … where the stakes begin to go up.  At such places of high conflict, the motivation of your characters must be clear to you.  If you haven’t figured them out by then, the scene can’t help but be weaker than it should be.

Early on in my career, I knew enough craft to put credible, fast-paced novels together and get them published.  I was still gaining experience, however, and although I understood why I needed strong conflict in scenes and why I needed high stakes I couldn’t always figure out everyone’s motivations.

Impatiently I would go at things the hard way, slogging through a rough draft, writing and rewriting scenes.  Somewhere in the middle of the book, the big confrontations would start to happen, and then I’d achieve clarity.  Oh, that’s why he’s doing that.  Oh, that’s why she loves him.  Oh, that’s why he’s lying.

It was always such a relief to hit that place in my manuscript where I understood my characters.  Then I’d set about revising the front half of the manuscript to reflect what I’d discovered.  It always made a difference to the characters’ actions and dialogue.  And rewriting — reweaving — the storyline could be quite tricky and difficult.

With time, and a certain number of completed novels to my credit, I learned how to evaluate an idea first before plunging in.  And I learned the value of figuring out character motivations before I wrote.  Doing this saved me at least one draft of writing effort, and I could write progressive scenes that were stronger, closer to the mark of what I wanted to accomplish, and even contained subtext.

So take the time to ask yourself why a character is refusing to accept a marriage proposal, why a character is rebelling against authority, why a character wants so desperately to reach Mars, why a mobster wants to wipe out a witness. 

Not understanding what lies behind your characters’ actions and comments can lead to the pitfalls of silly plotting, implausibilities, lapses of logic, and plot holes.  It can allow the story stakes to fall, and scene conflict to become trivial.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why, Oh Why? Writing Diagnostics VIII

  1. Well reasoned and written. I am in complete agreement with you on this, and do my best to know what each of my characters want, even the second and third-level players. While the character that is furthest from the action gets less attention, I agree that I should know what drives him or her, even if it never comes out in the story.

    • Absolutely! Whether a character’s motivation is ever explained hardly matters. It comes through in the consistency, the rightness, of what even bit players say and do.

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