Hugh Grant hanging out with Divine Brown. Donald Trump’s hair. Britney Spears lack of hair. If this were Jeopardy the question would be: “What the heck were you thinking?”
Take another look at your current manuscript. Are readers going to ask you that question? At some point in your story will they throw up their hands or just throw the book across the room?
Motivation. It’s one of the ways readers become invested in a character. Science fiction writer Nancy Kress was the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine several years ago. I can’t remember her exact words, but she explained motivation more or less like this in one of her columns: In real life people do things for silly, illogical and outright weird reasons. Or for no reason at all. But in a novel, characters need good reasons for what they do--if you want to keep readers hooked. Believable, realistic characters—characters who feel like real people instead of paper cutouts, don’t just react to drive your story. They behave like the people you created them to be.
Have you ever watched one of those hokey old movies where the heroine is alone in an isolated house when the power goes out? And of course, what does she do? She heads down into the pitch-dark cellar to check the fuses where the serial killer/vampire/escaped-prisoner-with-a-chainsaw is waiting. And watching we groan or throw our popcorn at the screen because who does that? In fact, who hangs out alone in creepy isolated houses in the middle of nowhere in the first place?
If you want your main character to do something that she (and anyone with any common sense, like your readers) wouldn’t normally do, you need to give her some compelling motivation—a reason that makes sense for that character in that circumstance.
Maybe the heroine is at the spooky house in the woods because she’s hiding from her ex who dislocated her shoulder and broke two of her ribs the last time she saw him. Maybe she heads for the basement when the lights go out because she knows he’s in the house, she knows he’ll follow her down there, she’s banking on that because she’s set up a little booby-trap on the fourth step from the top.
Or maybe the heroine is at the house because she needed a week away from her mother who keeps trying to get her to marry a nice boy and make babies before all her eggs shrivel up to dried out DNA. And maybe she heads to the basement when the power goes out because she knows there’s a quart of
Motivation can get tricky in mysteries where the main character isn’t involved in law enforcement in some way. Remember Jessica Fletcher? Okay, I confess I watched the show, but c’mon, the woman fell over a dead body every week and managed to catch the killer as well. After a while people should have been running the second they saw her coming. This is where you need to watch out for the lame excuse masquerading as motivation. If I see the guy who murdered my best friend while I’m shopping for shoes at the mall, yeah, I want him caught. But I’m going to dial 911, not chase him through the end of season clearance racks at the Gap.
Tim Cockey, author of the Hitchcock Sewell mysteries (Hearse of a Different Color, Backstabber) made Hitchcock an undertaker so the character would have a legitimate reason for being around so many dead people. Add to that a weakness for beautiful women in trouble and a deep loyalty to the friends who make up Hitch’s “family” and Cockey has some decent motivation for his character always being tied up in a murder investigation.
Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott (Hard Row, Bootlegger’s Daughter) is a judge with a huge rowdy family, a husband in law enforcement and a father who’s often on the wrong side of the law—lots of ties to crime and lots of motivation to get mixed up in murder
Keep in mind motivation is different for everyone. A mother won’t do something that puts her children in danger, but she’ll face any danger to protect them. A loner will take different risks that someone with a big circle of friends. A younger person will probably take more chances that someone older--who is more likely to act on loyalty and longtime friendship.
Give your character a logical reason to act, a legitimate reason to get involved. And if you’re sending her down into the cellar make sure there’s a quart of
Since we're on the subject of motivation I'm going to give you all a chance--or possibly more than once chance--to find out what makes the average man act the way he does. Tell me what's the lamest motivation you've ever come across in a book or a movie in comments, or just say hello, and I'll enter your name for a chance to win The Slime Men Do, by Humble Howard Glassman--real stories from women about the crappy things some men do. For each copy of Slime that's sold a contribution will be made to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation--and this month happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness month. So here's where it gets fun. If there are more than 20 comments here I'll give away two copies of the book. More than 40 comments I'll make it three copies, more than 60, four copies. One comment per person per email address please. And no, comments from my blogmates don't count. You have until midnight Sunday to comments. Check back Tuesday to find out who won.