It’s after midnight and today has been incredibly busy. Today I attended the “Writer’s Block” conference in Louisville. The authors who spoke during the panels gave wonderful advice and they inspired me to improve my craft. The public readings were powerful. And, generally, it was great to connect with other writers in my community.
One of the best experiences of the day, however, was a workshop entitled: “Making Motivation Matter.”
(Photo from Foter)
The idea was simple but it was one I’d never really thought deeply on, or given nearly enough attention to before sitting down to write. The presenter’s premise was that if time is devoted to figuring out characterization and motivation in the beginning, the rest of the novel will fall into place. The question to ask yourself when beginning work on any new WIP? What does my character want?
This can be phrased in many ways, such as “What is my character fighting for?” or “What is my character’s goal?” But no matter how you word it, your answer to this single question will be the driving force behind all of your protagonist’s actions.
Once you know what they want, your next task is to throw up some roadblocks. Yes, folks, as we’re all aware, we can’t be too kind to our characters. They must have obstacles, and the reader must genuinely believe that failure is a possibility. If failure is never a real possibility, your reader will never be completely engaged.
Throughout the novel your character will have an overarching goal that they’re striving towards, but they should have a goal in each individual scene as well. And in each scene, and throughout the book, your character should face obstacles in achieving their goal/desire.
Now up until this point in the workshop, I felt like these were things I knew. They had become instinctive to me. Our characters must have dreams and wants, and in order for there to be a story, it can’t be too easy for them to realize those dreams and wants. But the next exercise she gave us blew me out of the water. Because I’d never really sat down and analyzed the strength of my MC’s motivation, and how compelling it was, in and of itself.
She gave us the following exercise:
1.) Write down your character’s name
2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible
3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?
4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.
5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.
6.) You guessed it. Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.
This might seem redundant, but it’s actually incredibly useful. I was one of the people whose answer to #3 was “Well, she won’t get what she wants. That’s bad enough, right? Her dreams will be thwarted…”
Well, no, it’s not enough. The stakes must be higher. Failure must cost the protagonist a lot, both internally and externally. If you want your readers to be holding their breath and turning pages at a rapid rate, you’ll need to find ways to make the possibility of failure completely unthinkable. Say your character is a girl training for the Olympics and wants to win the gold in swimming. Obviously, other than the difficult training regiment, the novel will need to include some obstacles that get in the MC’s way as she’s striving for that goal. But more importantly, the stakes must be greater than: She won’t win the gold. As a reader, when confronted with “She won’t win the gold,” your first reaction is probably “Who cares?” As an author, your task it to make them care, to make it matter. This can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, but it generally involves making it personal. Perhaps the girl’s father was an Olympic gold medalist and she has always lived in his shadow, trying to live up to his greatness. Or perhaps her father won bronze and has pushed her since a young age, so that her winning the gold is in some way his chance to win too. Even better, perhaps swimming itself is a way for her to overcome some insecurity or fear in her life. As you can see, these are all twists that would make failure more personal –that would make her failure matter on a deeper level.
When I applied this exercise to my own novel, I found myself scribbling furiously, pouring out ideas for how I could make my MC’s motivation matter more. I am so excited about the results and can’t wait to implement them.
I hope this exercise was helpful to you! It certainly was to me.
I’d love to hear from you guys. What do you do to develop character motivation and make it matter to readers?