What Moves You

>> Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the key elements of a novel or story, for both plot and characters, is motivation. Too frequently, in my opinion, a writer will pile actions on top of each other in order to make a plot without thinking through motivations. Instead, in order to meet the goals and plans intended by the writer, character Y has to do action T here, and the fact that there's no compelling reason for character Y to do so is glossed over in the interest of getting all the good stuff the writer intends.

Good authors do it (once in a while). Bad authors do it. A lot. Constantly.


No matter how cool your plot is to you, how precious a twist or turn that's coming, how clever a denouement you have planned, don't cheat to get there. A plot is only as clever and strong as it's weakest link. Skip steps, cut a corner here or there, have a character wander down a path that makes no sense and the plot comes across as contrived, false. At best. At worst, the bottom can fall out of the whole thing.

That doesn't mean it has to be logical. People do illogical or stupid or perverse things all the time. But it has to fit. That's good and bad. The cool thing about writing is that you can make as much or as little of the fictional world as you want. It's wide open. Limitless. The downside is, once you've built your world, you're bound by it. The rules need to be consistent, make sense within their own framework. That means almost any action can make sense if you've set it up so the actions fits. Having your protagonist slug a man in the mouth unprovoked requires a reason, a provocation (unless, say, they're brothers). There are any number of good ones, but you need to have a plausible reason for it, one that the reader can identify with, at some point in the story. But even perfect reasonably actions for a regular person may make no sense depending on how you built your character. The actions need to fit or the characterization gets muddy.

If not, the real damage is done to the characters. Nothing, in my opinion, kills a character, particularly a strong or personable one, like forcing them to do something that doesn't jibe with who they are. Like with the plot, you can have a character do almost anything, kill, maim, kick puppies - as long as it fits with the character or there's a rationale that makes sense for that character in that world in that situation. You start pushing your character in a direction that is hard to understand or seems at odds with who they are, you can lose a reader's interest, in the situation, in the plot, even in the character.

That doesn't mean the motivation always has to be spelled out. Nor that it will make sense to everyone. Sometimes, something will sit wrong with a reader and there's nothing to be done about it. If there are enough that identify with your viewpoint, that's not an issue - there's always someone who won't get it - but if you have to explain it to everyone, you might want to rethink it.

This is one of my pet peeves. For character readers, like myself, it can make or break a book, a character. In some cases, an author.

For me, once I've felt betrayed once too often by an author, I never go back.


  • Roy

    Yup, that's the reason why I can't read most of the modern "thrillers", especially Robert Ludlum's stuff. Action for the sake of action doesn't do a whole lot for my reading pleasure.

  • Stephanie Barr

    And you highlight an important point. What makes perfect sense to one reader comes across as damn stupid to another. I love Ludlum, but feel that way about Clancy. Go figure. In other words, no one can really avoid this entirely. There will always be readers that just can't see it.

    But, as an author, you need to have a viable motivation for everything you do, something that makes sense to the world you've created. Even if everyone else doesn't get it, you need to. And, if no one's getting it, maybe you need to make the motivation a little clearer.

  • The Mother

    And yet you see it, in published work, all the time. Ack.

  • Jeff King


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