Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The importance of character motivation

I'm currently working with the first story in my publishing/mentoring project In fabula-divinos and doing the first round of edits reminded me of something important.

You need to know your character.

It's something I tend to forget, particularly in my short stories. I get so caught up in the language, and making the plot real, and I know the character and things work out the way they should but...

Knowing the truth of your character and putting it in your stories adds massive levels of colour and intensity to the piece.

The latest short story I've been working is a horror story. I've never written a fully-intended to scare the pants of you horror story before. So my focus has been about language that will cause the visceral reaction in the reader, hoping to make them squirm and shiver.

I kinda thought about the character - what they wanted and why - but I've not dealt with it in enough depth and I realised that when I got to the end of the story I was trying to manipulate things to achieve what I wanted, rather than how the characters wanted. As a result, it felt hollow... Didn't matter how well I'd used the language, if what the character wants and how they are straining to achieve it isn't clear, then the story doesn't work.

By getting into the character's motivations and making sure it colours what they do, they become real and the reader is able to more fully either relate to them or hate them. And that's what we want them to do.

Things that you need to think about:

* how did they get into this situation?
* what do they know/don't know about it?
* what is their history - family, education, relationships, employment (these things will colour their reactions)
* what do they want to achieve right now?
* what is the worst possible thing that could happen to them right now?

Get yourselves answers for both your protagonists and antagonists and not only will you have great information to filter through the story, but you'll probably get some great plot ideas out of it as well!


Nicole Murphy has been a primary school teacher, bookstore owner, journalist and checkout chick. She grew up reading fantasy; spent her twenties discovering romance and lives her love of speculative fiction through the Conflux conventions. Her urban fantasy trilogy Dream of Asarlai is published by HarperVoyager. Her publishing venture In fabula-divinos ( is aimed at mentoring up-and-coming writers. Visit her website


Katherine said...

Interesting post. I especially liked the questions you listed that we should know about our characters.

Nicole Murphy said...

Thanks Katherine. It's something I tend to need to remind myself from time to time - character motivation is sooo important.

Celtic Chick said...

Great post. I agree that by knowing their motivation, you must get to know your characters well. One thing I discovered is that the characters may not get what they want in the end, but instead get what they need.

Andrea said...

This post is exactly what I needed. Thank you so much!