Motivation - Debbie Bennett

What do your characters want? Every major character in your story has a purpose – a need to gain something or go somewhere. It may be as simple as finding true love, or escaping a bad relationship, or it may be more complex – finding peace after some inner turmoil, or finding his or her place in a new world after some life-changing event. It’s these desires and motivations that drive your story and often push it off into new dimensions. Even your minor characters need a reason for being in your story, although your walk-on people may not have much of a motivation other than serving your character in a shop!

When the desires of character A directly conflict with the motivations of character B is where the fun starts, especially when B’s motivations are not necessarily apparent form the start. B may not even realise what he wants, although it might be obvious to everybody else!  That’s why many novels – and this probably applies more to genre fiction than literary fiction – have a protagonist and an antagonist. What is your character aiming for and who is against him, stopping him from achieving his goal? The essential conflict necessary for drama. And drama is what keeps readers reading. Imagine Coronation Street if nothing ever happened? If everybody was nice to each other, and nobody got murdered/kidnapped/blackmailed/had affairs/insert-latest-catastrophe, it’d be boring and nobody would watch it. I don’t know if anybody watched the BBC spy-drama Spooks over the past few years? The writers of this series had a habit of killing off major characters frequently and messily, which resulted in edge-of-seat viewing as you never knew who was going to survive the week. One particularly gruesome murder apparently attracted a record number of complaints at the BBC.

So what about the villains in your story? Not all bad guys are out for world-domination; it’s a bit of an unrealistic achievement outside of James Bond (or Austin Powers!) and will give your novel a tongue-in-cheek feel to it. What does your villain really want? Maybe it’s money, but money for what? To escape a life of poverty, maybe, or pay for an expensive life-saving operation for his daughter? That kind of motivation gives your story a real depth – when there is a reason for people behaving the way they do. Other than Dr Evil or comic book villains, the bad guys really don’t stroke fluffy white rabbits, while muttering “mwa-ha-ha” in a dark and sinister fashion. The bad guys often have complex reasons for their behaviour – one of my drug dealers was once a promising medical student but was thrown out when caught stealing morphine to feed his ex-army brother’s addiction. All backstory, but important to explain what is happening now.

But maybe there are no real villains and the antagonist is simply the husband left behind after the wife has a torrid affair – but there has to be a reason why she’s having an affair, surely? If Mary and John’s relationship has broken down and she goes off with Phil, then where’s the drama? Unless John’s trying to win her back somehow. Or Phil really only wants to get his hands on the large amount of money Mary’s going to inherit. What do Mary, John and Phil want? And will they get it by the end of the story? Is it possible for everybody to be happy?

But nobody’s perfect – and this is a pet idea of mine. I like to find the rotten bits in the apple and the pinpricks of light in the blackest of hearts. There is no black and white – everybody is shades of grey (and probably more than 50 …). And what if the bad guys care more about you than the good guys do? So many possibilities …


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