I was recently sitting in a small group writing session discussion on character motivation. The author leading the session had a number of great points, but the biggest and simplest was 'ask your characters why'. She went on to add, 'channel your inner 4-year-old child, and just keep asking--WHY?'
Little kids are trying to build their mental database as it were. If you tell them the sky is blue, they want to know why. And they will keep asking "why" to each and every answer until most parents just give up ;).
We need to do that with our characters to make sure there are real reasons for their actions and motivations. As readers, how many times have you read a book, or watched a TV show or movie and thought, "WTF? Why did they do THAT?!" Most likely the action or dialogue wasn't played through correctly and there was no valid character motivation behind it.
A very simplified example:
"Why do you race the other direction, way out of your way, to avoid firetrucks?"
"I don't like them."
"They freak me out."
"They're loud and scary."
"I'm afraid of fire."
"When I was five the house behind me burned down and there were little kids inside."
As the writer, you decide how much of the motivation to show. The character very well might not know the reasons for their actions, and it can and should be something that unfolds throughout the story. BUT-the writer needs to know it. (Back to the Iceberg issue a few posts back. ;))
A few rules:
1) "Because I am the writer, and I say so"- is not a valid answer. If you hit that, let the buzzer go off in your head and re-think what's going on. It may work as a last resort with your kids, character motivation not so much.
2) "Because I NEED them to do X-Y-Z"- BUZZ! Nope, see above, there needs to be a logical and consistent reason for the actions. Go back to square one and start asking your characters why again.
3) Some secondary characters really might not make this work. For example, this is what happened when I tried it with Crusty Bucket, one of the drunken faeries from The Glass Gargoyle:
"Why do you faeries drink so much?"
All conversation was lost at that point to her singing about dancing minkies.
Some characters just refuse to play. For minor ones, or deliberately difficult ones like Crusty, that might be fine. But if your primary characters refuse to get down to some serious levels of why? You have a problem that needs to be fixed. Yes, because I said so.
Hahaha, I actually wrote a blog post 2 years ago about the origin of my story, and in there I said:ReplyDelete
Then I started doing something horrible. I started to ask “Why?”
I've been obsessing over "why" lately as I work through my outline. Why does this power feed on this one, and why does this hurt this one? Why can't this character save this other one? Why doesn't this character want all these other powers? Why is he fighting his responsibility?
Anyways, very thought provoking post. I like the application.
LOL! Sounds like you are really into the WHY issue, Loni! Maybe it's when we run out of why's that we should be worried :). Thanks for coming by and commenting!Delete
Love this! I'm going to start asking myself why a lot more now while editing. Maybe it'll help me figure some things out :)ReplyDelete
Excellent, Sarah! may the why be with you! (Yeah, it's been a long day ;)). Thanks for coming by and commenting!Delete
Because I said so isn't good enough?! That's not fair, I'm creating this world and it should work on my rules. A wrong answer, right? Asking why is a good thing which I sometimes forget in my hurry to get characters to act the way I want them to, not necessarily in any logical way. It's probably the reason I scratch my head rereading my first draft. I guess I shouldn't say to my character "What were you thinking?" I should be saying it to myself. Good post, MarieReplyDelete
HEH! I was afraid we were going to have a pout there, Sharon! ;). Yeah, sadly, when we get in the spot we need to be asking ourselves that question (been there, done that ;)). Thanks for coming by and commenting!Delete
Good point, Marie...there have been times when Rick or I was reading a book (or watching something on TV or a movie) when we would stop and say, "What the heck??" Because something made no sense to us....an action or reaction... something said or done...and there was no reason that we could see for it...no explanation given or experience the character had gone through that made it clear why it happened....pulls you right out of the story.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Deb! I know I will get violently annoyed when that's done. Although to be honest, I notice it more in TV shows than books--or it could be that the books more likely to do that were so bad I already put them down :(. Thanks for coming by and commenting!Delete
I love the "Why?" question, (and also channeling my inner 4yo). The whys let you get really deep into your story. Like my highschool english teacher always said, "Dig deeper!" Love love love this post!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Donelle! :). It's amazing what such a simple thing can do for our writing!Delete
Thanks for coming by and commenting!