Most of us at one time or another have written something that made our critique partners cringe because what we’d written made our hero look like a jerk or made our heroine look bitchy. Yet, we insisted that the characters did need to do these things. More than just being part of the plot, part of the conflict, these were things that these people would do given their histories and backstories. Even so, rewrite after rewrite our critique group continued to shake their collective heads telling us that our hero was still not heroic and our heroine was still not likeable.
The secret to getting the reader to let your hero or heroine off the hook for just about anything they do is motivation told through deep point of view.
First off, motivation comes in two forms.
There is external motivation. This is motivation which comes from outside your character. Your character is motivated to run because there is someone with a gun who is shooting at him. Your character is motivated to leave his home by boat because the flood waters are rising. Your character goes “all in” at the gambling table because he sees two goons with baseball bats who are going to break his knee caps if he doesn’t make enough on this bet to pay them what he owes.
There is internal motivation. Internal motivation is related to what your character thinks or feels rather than to what he needs to do physically to save himself from an external threat or situation.
External motivation is easy to convey to your reader. If your hero must run because someone has a gun and is shooting at him the threat is easy for the reader to see…it is there in his experience of the scene around him. Running away from someone who is shooting a gun at you makes sense. The reader will have no problem understanding why the hero is running.
Internal motivation is much more difficult to convey to your reader because the motivation is inside your character, wrapped up in his thoughts and feelings, which your reader can’t see from a factual narrative describing the scene around him and his actions within that scene.
Most of the time, when our critique groups complain about heroes who aren’t heroic and heroines who aren’t likeable it is because we have not shown enough internal motivation for their less than likable actions. In essence they are behaving badly, but we haven’t shown the reader why they are behaving badly.
Often times our most basic feelings about things stem from experiences in our pasts, quite often our distant pasts, even our childhoods. So often, when we need to motivate a character to do something that is outside the expected (whether it is good or bad) we need to look into the character’s background, perhaps even to their childhood in order to understand and then show their motivation.
So….let’s assume for a minute that I am writing a book in which my hero is rude and demeans my heroine several times throughout the first few chapters of the book. If I write the chapters just showing what he does and what she does in response my critique group is probably not going to like my hero, they are probably not going to root for him to end up with the heroine. They are probably going to hope that she kicks him to the curb and leaves him there. At the worst they will dislike her for being too weak to kick him to the curb or for being too bitchy when she does kick him to the curb. It seems a bit like a no win situation…but it isn’t really.
What I need to make all the pieces work is motivation. What makes my hero think that it is okay to be nasty to my heroine? Why does he think he is justified? Maybe his parents took her in when she was an unwed pregnant teen while he was away at college. Maybe he is jealous of the relationship she had with his parents, especially his father who never had a good word for him but doted on her. Maybe he had a fight with his father on one of his visits home when his father told him that if he couldn’t get along with her when he came home, he should just stop coming home. What if when he stopped coming home the ranch was profitable and in good repair and now the place is in shambles. What if he thinks that she’s taken his dad for a ride all these years…bled him dry. What if the reason they are thrown together now is his dad’s death and a will that stipulates they have to live together on the ranch for six months in order for either to receive what’s left of the ranch? Do you see how there is now motivation for him to resent her and for that resentment to spill into some nasty words? There’s a lot of motivation for him to snip and snipe at her. Even she can understand why he might resent her.
But I can’t just dump this into the story at the front end as chapter 1. What I need to do is pull it in through his deep point of view at the points where I need it to motivate his behavior, which in this case would be when they are having exchanges in which he is mean to my heroine. (This means that these scenes are going to need to be in his point of view. I can’t show his internal motivation through her viewpoint.)
If I bring in his backstory through snippets of memory during the exchange I can show his motivation and then the reader will understand why he is acting like a jerk. They may still think he is behaving like a jerk but rather than hating him for it they will understand why he is behaving badly. Because they know that the heroine is nothing like he thinks her to be they will be perched on the edges of their seats waiting to see what happens when he learns the truth and all his misjudgments come home to roost. Will he apologize? Will she accept his apology? Will he try to make it up to her in some way? How? Do you see how now the reader wants to know what happens? They aren’t throwing the book across the room at the nearest trash can, they are now turning pages as fast as they can to find out what happens next. This is a big difference.
Weaving in motivation is a lot like weaving in any other aspect of the character’s reality. You simply weave the character’s memories (which motivate the bad action) in with other bits of action and dialogue.
Sometimes a character’s actions are so bad or such a systemic a part of their personality that you can’t provide enough motivation in the few remembered snippets. For example, if my heroine doesn’t trust anyone and this comes up often, I will probably not be able to adequately motivate her distrust of everyone each time it comes up. So what I need to do is provide her motivation in one place so that I don’t have to keep weaving it in through the use of small snippets which will soon make my readers tired of hearing about her impoverished childhood in the foster care system and the distrust that resulted. So, if the first time she has a big action that is based on her experiences in foster care I stop the forward momentum of the story and I show through her memory an experience which explains her distrust then I have laid the groundwork for motivating her distrust throughout the story. I no longer have to weave in small memories of it each time. I just need to have her act in accordance with the background that I’ve shown. At this point I might still need to use a snippet of memory now and then to motivate specific actions, but the need for these will be less and the number of them less intrusive.
When writing the flashback that motivates your character’s behavior and world view it is important to include detail and especially the character’s emotions throughout the flashback. The flashback needs to feel real to the character and the reader in order to be strong enough to motivate the bad behavior. Make sure that emotional reality is strong in your flashback so that your reader can draw on that when your character needs motivation. When you’ve shown the event that motivates the character’s behavior and world view exit the flashback with the character maintaining the remnants of the emotion that were present in the flashback. This provides the motivation for the characters actions, thoughts, beliefs, and yet it seems fresh and raw to the reader as well as to the character.
Because your reader was along and experienced the motivating event with your character the reader now understands why the character is the way she is and why she behaves as she behaves. The reader will now empathize with the heroine, hoping she gets beyond the distrusting world view which holds her back, rather than disliking her for having the world view to begin with.
Of course, solid motivation told with deep point of view doesn’t mean that your character doesn’t have to change. The hero who is mean to the heroine will have to change his tune, feel remorse, and make it up to the heroine when he finds out that far from taking her father to the cleaners she’s been supporting him by working two jobs for the last three years.
The heroine who distrusts everyone will need to grow beyond that world view, probably through her interaction with the hero.
The more flawed our characters are at the outset, the more we cheer for them at the end when they overcome their flaws and are rewarded with love and a happily ever after.
This post is adapted from one of the lessons in my deep point of view workshop. Visit the workshop page at http://lauriesplace.net/category/writing-workshop/ to check out the current list of upcoming workshops.