I’ve been thinking a lot about character motivation lately. This was brought on by a couple of books I was reading simultaneously, and realized that both of them had some things in common. First of all, they were books I LOVED, and the exact kind of stories I want to emulate in my work. Second, they were amazingly compelling and well paced. In trying to think about why I loved them so much, one of the things I realized was that each of the main characters had very tangible, easy to understand goals.
I’ve always heard “know what your characters want,” and “every character needs a goal,” but I’m starting to recognize that up until now all of my characters’ goals and desires have been kind of… vague. And this is making my characters weaker than they could be.
Not that an abstract desire *can’t* be done well, but I’ve found that in the books I really enjoy, a more concrete goal makes for stronger motivation.
All this reminded me of a picture I’ve seen on the @litrejections twitter account:
What does this mean for my characters? It means that they can’t just have a nebulous dream without anything attached to it (which is what they currently have). They need a PLAN. They need to have steps in mind for achieving said dream, and they need to try to get it. They can fail, and should fail a few times. And maybe their plan changes, or the goal shifts, but their motivation and forward movement should always be there.
That’s what makes a story great, for me. A character who knows what they want, and goes after it.
And lucky me, I just got notes back from my critique partner on SUMMON, and while she didn’t say these things exactly, the notes she did give showed me that this was a huge issue. So I’m hoping I can fix this, and give my characters much more active roles in their stories.
Vague: Jane wants to find her true love. Specific: Jane has a crush on John and asks him to the dance, studying for weeks on how to effectively flirt so he’ll fall madly in love with her.
Vague: Joe wants to make a difference in the world. Specific: Joe runs for office in his city with a detailed plan to improve things.
Vague: Sara wants to be a doctor. Specific: Sara studies her butt off to get into medical school.
Vague: Hank wants revenge. Specific: Hank plans for years until he comes up with the perfect plan to kill the man who murdered his wife.
I hope that makes sense. I’ve been writing for seven years and I’m only now starting to really understand how well-build characters are formed. This is only one aspect, but I think a very important one.
Anyway. Not a super long post, but something that’s been on my mind. What are your thoughts on character desires and motivation? I’d love to hear your thoughts.