Saturday, October 6, 2007

Getting Motivated

By Darlene Ryan

Getting Motivated

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 Rocky Road down there in the freezer and she just got off the phone with Mom.

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 Rocky Road down there in the freezer.

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.


Karen McKay said...

The Bridges of Madison County. She didn't want to run off with Clint Eastwood? I would.

Paul S said...

I've read too many scenes where the PI gets into a fight with a guy who's about 50 pounds heavier and 20 years younger. Where's the logic in that?

Karen B said...

Tom Cruise in Cocktail:
"When a guy gets a dare, he's gotta take it."

Susan E said...

The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout. Killer had "the soul of an imp...." He pulled a practical joke he didn't want to be associated with, delivering an out-of-wedlock baby to the widow of its father, so he killed three people.

Grammar Geek said...

I have to enter, if only because I'm going through Humble and Fred withdrawal since they left the Mix... *grin*

Tho, I'm still bitter about the TSTL heroine who forgave her hero after he drugged her so he could marry her and knock her up (while she was unconscious) all so he could steal her amniotic fluid. ugh. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I don't know if your blog sisters qualify for the contest, but I did think of a good bad one: in Stuart Woods's Stone Barrington novels (with which I have several other bones to pick, but won't here), the love of his life and mother of his child, bizarrely named Arrington, marries someone else instead of him because she doesn't want to be Arrington Barrington. C'mon--in the 21st century? Sometimes lack of motivation comes across as contempt for the reader--yet one more reason to get those good reasons into our stories.

Darlene Ryan said...

What does one do with stolen amniotic fluid?

Jean said...

Hi, Darlene. I'm guessing stolen amniotic fluid has something to do with genetic engineering or eternal life quests.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oooh! OOOOH! Pick Me! I wanna copy of a book about slimeball men!!!

Okay, here's my nomination:
In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Edmund is in love with the beautiful, talented, lively, funny, rich Mary Crawford, then he dumps her when she is saddened but not horrified over Edmund's sister and her brother running off together. Mary tells him it was stupid of them to do, but she expresses her sensible views of how they should now put their lives back together.
Edmund dumps her and marries the boring, sickly, wimpy, and personalityless Fanny Price -- who happens to be his cousin!!! What is he thinking? Does he want deformed kids?
Why???!!! Why would anybody marry Fanny? And why would some guy with a great woman already in love with him suddenly dump her because of one comment, just so he can marry the heroine.
Now, if Austen had killed off Mary, or had her become a prostitute, or had her grow gossipy or spiteful.... then we might have believed that Edmund, the soon-to-be clergyman, might have dropped back to his only other choice. But honestly! The way it's written is just stupid.

There. Do I win? :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Karen b, anything involving a man and a dare is bound to be dumb and pretty much incomprehensible to females. I believe wars have resulted from the collision of male hormones and dares.

The motivation of amateur sleuths often seems thin to me, but I think this is a subgenre that calls for willing suspension of disbelief. I actually enjoy darker stories like A PERFECT PLAN, where the beginning motivation (money money money, free money!)is stupid but quite believable in light of human nature, and things start spinning out of control until people are killing one another left and right at the slightest provocation. If the author handles the buildup well, it can all be believable.

Darlene, it is downright... slimey of you not to give your loyal and loving blog sisters a chance to win a book! :-(

Anonymous said...

Just today I was trying to figure out a motivation -- why, when traffic is being narrowed down to a single lane from two lanes, does an occasional putz think it's okay for he/she to stay in the lane that's being closed until 50 from the end of said lane? Rrrrrr.

But as far as books go, I'd say the motivations in almost every Nancy Drew book were pretty lame. Doesn't mean I don't love the stories, but sometimes the suspension of disbelief was pretty tough. Of course, now that I write that, I can see I'll have to go back and read a few, just to make sure I know what I'm talking about :)

Carol F. said...

I don't get Olivia's motivation for not jumping Elliot's bones on Law and Order SVU.

Wen said...

I can never understand the motivation of amateur detectives who are also the mothers of small children risking their lives to solve a murder.

The Munch Mancini series by Barbara Seranella comes to mind. I love Seranella's writing but I hated the way Munch was always in danger. She was the only parent her adopted daughter had.

robynl said...

I just want to say 'hi' b/c my brain is 'on hold' at this moment in time. Thanks.

ruth said...

There are plenty of novels which warn the woman not to leave the jurisdiction due to her safety being in peril. So she just is stubborn enough to, of course, take the chance and leave and then lives to regret it.

Karen B said...

Carol, Elliot is a hottie. Did you ever see the actor in HBO's prison series OZ? Brutal show, high Ick Factor, but the character was charmingly Machiavellian, and you got to see a lotta skin. Yum.

Hirsch said...

Batman has Alfred. Bond has Miss Moneypenny and "Madam" has me. Darlene and I had a side bet on how many comments her post would get and I lost. Thanks everyone for commenting. This is a bet I don't mind losing.

Terry H said...

Great post. I especially love the example of the woman alone in the isolated house--or as critics of Mary Stewart and Mary Roberts Rhinehart call it, the "had-I-but-known" syndrome that alway seemed to involve the heroine flitting through the spooky grounds in a filmy white nightgown.

I've encountered so many examples over the years, I'm hard pressed to come up with a specific one, but the one I always use to explain the phenomenon was probably in a bad Samuel Z. Arkoff horror movie or something equally lame, but I never forgot the lesson I learned from it. When you're alone in that isolated house and/or all the other characters (victims) have inexplicably disappeared and you her a noise in that dark basement, IT'S NEVER JUST THE CAT! (Which was probably the first go go, anyway. Everbody KNOWS the first sign of a crazy serial killer in the house is a dead pet.)

Terry H

anne said...

Why does the woman detective feel that she has the ability to outrun and beat a man whom she is chasing, when he is larger and stronger. Eveyr time this scenario is played the outcome is the same.

Jess said...

Twentieth comment! Woo! :D

I have no examples because my head is feeling fuzzy right now, but there've been a few groaners I could mention if I were thinking clearly. Jessica Fletcher's a great example, and I loved that show anyway.