Motivating your characters

There’s nothing cooler than being asked for advice on how to write a story. I was at church last Sunday and while waiting to talk to the pastor, a young lady comes up to me. She said that she heard that I had published a book and that I might be able to help her with her own book she’s writing. We sat down and I gave her a very brief crash course on storylines, how to shape a plot, and the general beats of a story. I asked her what her character wanted, what is the main character’s goal. That’s where she was having trouble.

Honestly, it’s a tough question. Because there are two types of desires that your main character, really all your characters, have. There’s the outer motivation and the inner motivation. The outer motivation is what your characters visibly hope to accomplish by the end of the story. The inner motivation is the reason for the outer motivation, something that the character thinks will lead to self-worth.

Take the classic film Shrek (2001) for example. If you haven’t scene the film (cheap pun, but I’ll take it), it’s about an ogre that has his swamp invaded by fairy tail creatures. He goes on an epic quest for the lord of the land to rescue a princess. If he can rescue the princess and return her to the lord, he’ll get his swamp back and be left in solitude.

Starting out, Shrek’s outer motivation is to rescue the princess. His inner motivation, what drives his outer motivation is his need for isolation. As the film progresses Shrek falls in love with the princess. At this point, his motivations change which is perfectly fine. Your characters should grow throughout the story which will most likely change their motivations.

With Shrek now love struck, his outer motivation is to win her love. His inner motivation is, duh, his newfound love for the princess.

Now you might be thinking to yourself,”but Jim, that’s a movie and not a book. How does that apply to anything?”

Before you come to my house with pitchforks and torches, allow me to explain that books and movies are very similar when it comes to developing your characters and storyline. Plus, the film was based on a fairy tale book by William Steig. I could list an endless amount of films that were originally books.

The question now is which should you develop first, the character’s motivations or the plot line? This could be a chicken/egg scenario. How do you know what the character’s motivations are if you don’t know what’s going to happen during the story?

That really depends on the genre that you’re writing. Look at The Lord of the Rings this time. If I were Tolkien (man that would be cool) I would have started with the big threat of Sauron. Creating that backstory and world, and then creating a way to destroy Sauron once and for all. Then you create Frodo and Sam and their motivations.

Of course, that might change if you’re writing a romance novel. Then you’d have more of a character centric plot including a possible love triangle. That love triangle is obviously the outer motivations of each of the three characters. Then you’d shape the plot around them.

As always though, it’s really what you want to do as an author. If it works for you, do it the way you want. I think next week I’ll write about some of the characters you might include in your story and what their importance is. What would you want me to write about? What do you want to know? Leave me a comment!

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