What's my motivation?

Porsha is not amused by tales of dogs and foxes.
We all know that the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, but what I want to know is why? After all, it could have gone tiptoed past the dog. It could have given the dog a wide berth, and gone down the pub instead (the Fox and Hounds, presumably). Or maybe it actually jumped over the dog on a motorbike, as part of a charity fundraiser, but history has simplified the event?

Motivation and purpose are key elements of good characterisation. Yes, we need to know who the goodies, baddies and ambiguities are, but we also need to understand what made them that way and what governs their actions.

A mindless psychopath is infinitely more fulfilling as a protag or an antag once we encounter an event that triggered their behaviour, or discover the childhood incident which was a warning sign that all was not well.

It's true of other figures too. When we understand why Mr Darcy reacts to Elizabeth Bennet the way he does, our feelings for him change - he shows complexity and vulnerability, and perhaps a little more swoonability (I'm guessing here).

This subtle reveal needs a light touch, and is best achieved without a surfeit of adverbs. Consider this slice of Flash Fiction* (which I will now hastily make up to order)...

He watched the fly crawl up the chopstick, marvelling at its instinct for survival. Seven times now, and still it found the strength to escape the water in the beaker. The fly was only millimetres from the end before he gently lifted it on to his finger, and then flicked it back to the bottom of the beaker. "Nice try," he smiled. His other hand, palm upwards, held the glistening insect wings he had pulled off at the start of the experiment.

I don't know about you, but that guy makes my flesh creep. However, I also want to know what makes him tick. Maybe if I can appreciate what made him turn out like this I can overcome my revulsion and keep on reading.

Motivation and purpose add layers of depth to your characters. Knowing what drives them, and perhaps what they're running away from, can suggest actions and reactions you might never otherwise have considered. It can be the catalyst for the magical moment when your characters come to life and - as I've discovered twice in my novels - start arguing for their rights or suggest plot ideas.

So, do you know what makes your characters tick, and how to get that across to your readers?

And for the non-writing readers among you, does understanding Mr Darcy's motivations make him more desirable?

* As today is National Flash Fiction Day, allow me to introduce Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories by Flash Fiction South West. You can also read a little more about it here.


Sandra Davies said...

Oh yes - ineresting post and especially creepy example.
What was also interesting was that I assumed this post was written by a woman and then, realising it wasn't my ... revulsion (?) at the description lessened, as if it was more acceptable (because more likely? normal?) that men would pull wings off flies.

Joanna said...

Many thanks for a fantastic and inspiring post. I'm going to think about this and apply it to my characters before resuming my WIP this morning.

Fionnuala said...

Anything I can read at the moment that nudges me back to the 'writing drawing board' is welcome and this post did a Heineken. That is, it reached the spot.
Lots of food for thought...
And flash fiction? Thanks for reminding me of that too. I used to find it a fabulous way of getting the writing muscles working. Great post.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Great post, Derek, and a horribly illustrative flash (as it were). As you say, getting inside characters' heads is key: only in there can we write from their truth.

Flowerpot said...

That was really creepy but yes I would like to know more about him. I wrote a short story about someone who killed his wife years ago and was so frightened afterwards I couldn't be at home!

DT said...

Some great comments that merit a musing or two.

Sandra - That's a really interesting point about whether there are differences between how a man and a woman write. I remember finding out romance novelist Emma Blair was actually Iain Blair, and that he'd been brought up in a mostly female environment.

Joanna - I need to do the same thing with some of mine!

Fionnuala - I love that flash fiction can be written on a post-it. And there's less risk with such a small space!

Susie - I agree, because the best characters get inside our heads when we read about them.

Flowerpot - That's a brilliant anecdote. I've made myself uncomfortable with my writing, but never pushed the envelope that far!

Oh, and thanks to Porsha, our Magnificat!

Debs Riccio said...

Oooh food for thought... I've never ever written any Flash Fiction because ( I'm rubbish at short stories) I assume I'll be rubbish at it. Same with Haiku. I just can't do brief. Succinct. Concise. I just keep going on. And on. And.... *enough now*.

DT said...

Just write the shortest story you can and then condense it, like milk.