Posted on April 24, 2010 - by MG
The Zero Moment blog tour continues…and M is for Motivating your Characters.
This time it’s a rare post about the process of writing, from me. The reason I don’t blog more about writing is, well, others do it so well. It seems a little superfluous to add any more!
However, since I’m actually struggling with plotting now, it’s a timely point for me to consider the aspect of writing that I think is maybe the most important part of the process, which is the motivation of the characters.
I discovered the importance of this element by accident, while writing ZERO MOMENT. The plot fell into place easier than either the plots for INVISIBLE CITY or ICE SHOCK, mainly because Josh’s motivation was so much simpler to define. It made me realise that where I’d really had to think hard in plotting the first two, was in driving Josh.
Novels tend to succeed if they are about people doing extraordinary things; dangerous either to their health or to their sanity. As readers we like to see characters playing a high-stakes game. It doesn’t have to be physical; simply telling the guy you totally adore can be a very risky game – if the story have been set up properly.
The problem is, real people prefer not to take insane risks. Normal people tend to say ‘travel around the world, risk life and limb to find lost treasure? Hmm. Maybe I’ll stay home.’
Aristotle advises authors to write characters who are as believable as possible (more on Aristotle in the next stop on the tour.) Yet we want them to take crazy risks. The author’s job is simple (hah!) – to make those awful risks seem reasonable, achievable and well worth taking. Whilst creating massive tension in the reader’s mind, anxiety about the dangers.
The first novel I wrote (unpublished, but adapted as an Alternate Reality Game – THE DESCENDANT) used the simplest technique I know: the gun at the back. Create a threat which will force your protagonist to move in the direction you want. Every time the pace falters, step up the level of threat.
You could use blackmail, a hit guy on your trail, a deadly disease. The key is that the protagonist himself must be in danger, and will take action simply to relieve the danger.
It’s what screenwriters refer to as a ‘negative driver’. Crude but effective. In the long run, less emotionally satisfying perhaps? After all – even an animal will take action to get out of danger.
More difficult is the ‘positive driver’, where the protagonist takes action and deliberately puts themselves in harm’s way to achieve a positive outcome, not merely to evade a direct threat.
It’s more difficult because real people don’t take insane risks…and whatever the author tries to tell us, as readers we know this on a instinctive level.
And in any argument between instinct and reason, there can be no winner.
Then – if things weren’t already complicated enough – the author needs to balance the internal and external motivation. Because it’s a thin, unsatifying plot where the character operates only on one level. James Bond wants to achieve his mission because it’s his job is trumped by James Bond wants to achieve his mission because it’s crucial to him getting over the death of his wife.
So – motivation can be positive or negative but it must be strong and it must be believable. (Believable is the hard part.) For depth, motivation must comprise two parts – the external desire (e.g. complete the dangerous mission) and the internal desire (e.g. justify the otherwise pointless death of someone who failed first time).
The final thing to remember is that as well as the overarching motivation that should drive the entire novel, we also need mini-motivations which drive sequences of scenes.
These mini-motivations can change, but should be clearly developed and the reader should be aware of the changing stakes and the new plan. When I say they can change, I mean that the protagonist can set out to do one thing, and then realise that the plan won’t work, and therefore change plans. Or they can overcome one challenge and then encounter another.
One challenge after another can make for a very linear, predictable read where the reader can sense the machine in the story. So it helps to layer the challenges – seed the next before the current challenge is completed.
If at any stage the reader thinks – Hang on. No sane person would do that – or even – this character wouldn’t do that then you have a big problem. The plot may fall apart. The reader may still finish the book, but deep down they’ll know that you drove them through part of the process and they might not like you for it.
Which is why I plot beforehand and at every stage I try hard to focus on this question – why is the protagonist doing this?
And the answer had better be a heck of a lot more persuasive than ‘because I need him to get from A to B’…
Someone kidnaps the people Josh most cares about and it is somehow his fault, so Josh must rescue them or else face his own cowardice for the rest of his life – turned out to be the simplest and strongest motivation I had ever been able to find in a plot. Which is why ZERO MOMENT was so much easier to write!