February 2-26, 2016
The symptoms of characters that are not well motivated are many and familiar. If a characters is not likeable because they perform acts that make them seem witchy, mean, hard-hearted, cold, less than empathetic, or uncaring there is a good chance that the character’s motivation is not clear, or is not clear enough at the proper time. When readers just don’t “connect” with a character, a good share of the time the culprit is the character’s motivation. A character that continually acts in ways that seem inconsistent with their established personality and backstory is hard to “connect” with. Readers feel as if they never understand why the character is acting as he or she is. Sometimes characters who are under motivated create havoc with the plot. They seem to move through the plot doing things more because it is time for them to do them rather than from any reason that stems from the events in the story’s past or present.
When we talk about motivating characters in classes people usually tell me the big picture things that motivate their characters. His mother walked out on him when he was a child. She watched her father abuse her mother and then eventually kill her mother. He was arrested and served time for a crime he didn’t commit. She was bounced from foster home to foster home throughout her whole childhood.
Any of these things could be great motivators. A mother walking out on a character when they were a child might make the child feel unlovable. It might make the character doubt the existence or the stability of love. Watching a parent abuse another parent might motivate a character to want to do something to help victims of domestic violence. It might make a character distrust men. Being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit might make a character distrust the legal system and those who work within it. Being bounced from foster home to foster home might make it hard for a character to bond deeply with people. It might make them feel as if they don’t fit or as if they don’t have connections within the wider world.
Most of the time, when there are problems with character motivation that present with the symptoms that I mentioned above, the problems aren’t associated with the big picture motivation. Most of the time, the authors I work with know their characters and how the characters’ backstories impact their actions in the story. They know this in the big sense…but don’t always know how to show it in the small scale…with the specific actions and reactions between the characters on a more micro scale in ways that make motivation clear, powerful, and believable.
The motivational problems that I see in most of the pieces that I work with in private editing, yellow highlighter classes, and with manuscripts that I edit for publishers relate to motivation on the micro scale. That is, they relate not to how the character’s backstory impacts him in the big picture sense in the story as a whole (like the summarizations I did above), they relate to how his backstory impacts him scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, within the small action and reaction blocks that make up the fabric of story.
In this workshop we’ll focus on how to motivate characters on the micro level. That is, how to show their motivation through small actions and reactions that make the character’s backstory and the motivation real, believable, and powerful to the reader.
Please note that workshop tuition is considered non-refundable. That said, I do make every effort to work with people–moving them to later classes–issuing credits–etc. when life intervenes and they are not able to participate as planned.