I’ve been contemplating my ever-growing stack of books, trying to figure out common attributes of stories I think about long after I’ve turned the last page and those of the books I all too happily set down with the knowledge I won’t pick it up again. There are myriad reasons for both, of course, but I’ve realized the books I love, the ones I read and reread, are filled with real characters with goals and plans and ambitions. Moreover, those characters have reasons for wanting what they want.
That’s the motivation part of the Goal-Motivation-Conflict approach to plotting, but I’m bringing it up now because, in my opinion, motivation is entirely character-driven. Yes, it could be argued that goals are character-driven, too, but I think it’s quite possible for two people to have the same goals or be doing the same things but for different reasons. Why someone wants something is more connected to who she is as a person than what it is she wants.
I’m getting ahead of myself, so first, it’s disclaimer time:
The following writing advice/exercises are only my own personal way of preparing for NaNoWriMo and getting to know my characters. This is not the only way to plan for NaNoWriMo. If you already have a method that works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments because I’m all for learning how other authors write.
Phew. That’s exhausting. Where was I? Ah, yes. Motivation: why anyone behaves the way they do.
Just as people’s personalities determine how they react to different things, so do well-developed characters. When getting to know your character, try dropping him in random scenarios that have nothing to do with your story. How will he react if a bird poops on his shoulder? What will he do if a snake slithers over his foot while he’s brushing his teeth? How does he respond to the barista at the local coffee shop who consistently mispronounces his name? More importantly, when you explore these scenarios, examine why he behaves this way.
Motivation comes from a solid backstory. You certainly don’t need to draft your character’s complete life story before you commit words to the page (and you should put as little of the backstory into your actual novel as possible), but you need to have an idea of why she’s doing anything.
The following are some examples of questions I would ask and answers I might provide when I’m digging deep to analyze my characters. See how different the motivations of these three characters are even though they’re all doing the same things:
Character X is eating a salad.
Why? Because none of the other lunch options looked appealing.
What would she rather be eating? Spicy tuna rolls with miso soup. (This answer begets another Why?)
Character Y is eating a salad.
Why? Because she’s concerned about her weight (which is also why she’s only using a quarter of the dressing that came with it).
What would she rather be eating? A triple-scoop hot fudge sundae with nuts, extra whipped cream, toffee chips, and 3 cherries. (This answer begets another Why?)
Character Z is eating a salad.
Why? She likes salads. She’s been craving one for days.
What would she rather be eating? Nothing else. She’s really happy with her salad.
Do you see how different each of those characters are based on why they’re eating salad? I mean, you can practically build entire personalities based on how they feel about eating their salads. Of course, you aren’t likely to write out the complete internal dialogue each character has in the lunch line (and you probably wouldn’t even write about the lunch line unless it’s relevant to plot), but now you know and can show us how they’re interacting with their salads. One may pick at her salad and look at each leaf with disdain. Another may practically inhale her salad and stare longingly at her friend’s pizza slice. Another still may attack her salad with gusto, eager to savor every bite.
It’s the same action (eating a salad), but each character will respond differently because of motivation. And what drives a character can be found in everything leading up to the start of your novel.
Get to know your character. Develop her backstory. Understand why she behaves as she does, because next time, we’ll start set goals for your character and begin establishing plot.
But everything begins with your character.