Character Motivation: Understanding Why Characters Act

Strong character motivation allows readers to understand why characters make the choices they do. If your fictional character is cheeky, annoying, defensive, eager to please, or stoically self-reliant, what happened in the past to make him or her this way?

When I wrote Madame Zee, I knew that the historical Zee was perceived as cruel and angry. She was susceptible to powerful men, and she wanted to believe in psychic phenomena. Her lover, the Brother XII, exhibited paranoid, erratic behaviour and professed to channel the wishes of an all-powerful enlightened being.

I imagined what might have happened to these two individuals to make them the people they ultimately became. I read everything I could find about the Brother XII, so that I would understand his motivation, and as there was little historical information about Zee, I imagined a life for her that might provide plausible character motivation. I researched the time and pored over archival materials, all to get a sense of what it might have been like to "be them." In the end, I attributed Zee's anger and attraction to powerful men to frustration born of gender inequality and the resentment of those who envied her. To explain her interest in the paranormal, I imagined a sister who died young and preoccupied Zee's thoughts of an afterlife.

Only a small portion of this research and speculation ended up in the book. Strong creative writing does not include pages of backstory. A few well-chosen details from the past will speak volumes; however, think your characters' histories through until you can choose those few particulars that will allow readers to also understand why it is impossible for your character to enter a hospital room, or call her father on Father's Day, or accept praise graciously. If you're cognizant of your characters' motivation, you will find yourself writing a line here or there that will eventually allow the reader to know what you know.

The film Rachel Getting Married opens with Kym leaving a rehabilitation facility to attend her sister's wedding. We see her interaction with her father and stepmother in the car, and then with her sister and sister's best friend at home. Soon the tension increases. As the two sisters interact, Rachel's resentment of Kym becomes clear, though it remains unexplained. Later, Kim attends a meeting for addicts and then returns to her parents' home. Nothing about her addiction is explained, and so no character motivation is obvious.

Not too long after this, however, a friend of the family makes a toast to the memory of Ethan. Later, Rachel says she misses Ethan. Without being told, we understand that Ethan was family. Later yet, Kym admits to her twelve-step group that she is responsible for the death of her four-year-old brother Ethan. While stoned, she drove them both over a bridge into the lake, and because she couldn't unbuckle Ethan's car seat and save him, he drowned. Much later, we learn that Kym's now emotionally distant mother knew Kym was stoned when she left Ethan in her daughter's care. And on the story goes.

Viewers are never subjected to large chunks of backstory. Character motivation is revealed slowly through the action and dialogue of the characters, in ever-larger bits, until it is possible for the audience to empathize with Kym, a recovering addict who has taken on all the guilt and responsibility of her brother's death. We are not told why the mother is distant, or that she should share in the responsibility for her son's death, but we understand the reason for her distance, and see that she shares responsibility she cannot accept. Kym's initially unsympathetic behaviour is the result of an earlier trauma, and as that trauma is revealed, her actions become increasingly plausible and sympathetic.

What trauma, insecurity, or loss has contributed to the behaviour of your fictional character? Why is your male character attracted to one sort of woman over another? What happened in his past to create this need? What fear prevents a female character from speaking openly to her mother? Is she afraid of losing her mother's love? If so, why? What has happened in the past that makes this a possibility in the character's mind? Why is one character liberal and another conservative?

To strengthen your creative writing, examine the character traits you have given your characters, and then jot down any thoughts you have about character motivation. Why do they have these traits? If you understand the root of your character's beliefs and behaviour, you will imagine ways to "show" the events that preceded these beliefs, and you will create character depth as your characters make plausible choices that reflect their psychology—all without "telling" the reader anything.

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