Character motivation is part of the foundation of ANY book, get the motivation wrong and it doesn’t matter how brilliant the prose, the story won’t stand up – and you’ll probably get stuck somewhere. Get it right, understand your characters, and all the bits that are worrying or not quite working will fall into place. Character motivation must be plausible, logical and MAKE SENSE, for your story to work.
I talked last week about how I start to build characters in my books – it’s vital to me that they feel real to the reader and that they stay with you long after you put the book down, and getting their motivation right is crucial to that.
I love a puzzle, a mystery that challenges me as well as taking me into a new world, and I think that’s why I write crime, but in the crime genre, creating a believable plot (no matter how incredible) is only possible if the characters’ motivation makes sense. As a writer I need to know why someone feels compelled to act in a certain way.
I recently did an online chat with ex police commander Graham Bartlett (who is a brilliant resource for writers, more here) and psychologist Dr Emma Donnelly (who you can hear more from on as part of the Crime Writers Association series of events on 14th October. Info here) Emma explained that many serial killers aren’t in fact mentally ill (slightly worryingly), BUT if they are suffering from a mental illness (in your story), it’s up to you to work out why and how that manifests – is it as a result of a traumatic event, or an inherited condition? How does it make them behave? What happened to Alfie in The Dark Room to change the path of his life so radically that he ended up on the streets?
As I’m looking at a new plot and developing a story idea, I’m looking at character actions and reaction. If my character behaves in a particular way – whether it’s lie, keep a secret, blab a secret, behave like an absolute bitch or bully a colleague – it’s vital I explore WHY that is happening in the context of the character’s life. The reader may not need to know why they act like they do in intimate detail, but as the writer, I absolutely need to know.
Every character is different, just as each of us is different, and their motivation varies. Why is my character having an affair? Are they trapped in a stale marriage and actively dislike their partner (why – where did it go wrong?) Or perhaps an affair is simpler than hitting their controlling partner over the head with a rock? Or are they insecure and looking for validation? Do they really want to get out of their marriage but don’t know how to do it (the rock plan has definite issues), and are half hoping they will be discovered? Understanding why someone does something informs their character, their actions and crucially their REACTIONS to circumstances. And that is what story is all about.
I do lots of research to make sure that I’ve got my characters’ motivation right – I am very aware that someone reading my story will be an expert in the area I’m writing about – keeping moths, or rabbits, or PTSD, bomb disposal or alien spacecraft. I focus on writing for them, on making the story ring true. I imagine that Dr Marie Cassidy is reading my pathology scenes and a doctor like Emma Donnelly who specialises in dealing with prison inmates, has picked up one of my books, it needs to work for both of them. There is nothing worse than being jerked out of a fictional world by something small and silly that is just plain wrong. It might not be a very well-known thing, but it can spoil a book, and that’s not the objective. As an author I have an unspoken contract with my reader to deliver the very best story that I can, and that means getting details right.
Google is a great starting point for research – you’ll find news stories that intersect with your plot idea, academic papers that cover your area of research – and once you have the general gist of the scene, experts are out there to answer your questions about why your characters behave the way they do.
For me, fully understanding my character’s psychological motivation is crucial to the rest falling into place. You can read around your subject to get a feel for it. In High Pressure, my digital ‘spiderweb’ book that’s coming out on September 22 (available for preorder now), Brioni O’Brien has been travelling for a year across Asia on her own. It’s not something I’ve ever done, so I spoke to a friend who had spent a LOT of time solo travelling – I found out what she kept in her rucksack, what items were vital to travel with and what she managed without. I also found out what happened when she was mugged, and that informed the plot hugely. I read travel blogs to get inside the minds of solo travellers so I could understand what personality traits they had (that I clearly don’t have) that makes them want to jet off on their own, and love every minute of the experience.
No matter how well you think you know your characters at the start of a book, they aren’t always co-operative – they keep secrets from you too, and they have to get to know you before they will reveal their darkest thoughts. It might not be until the end of the book that I truly know them, and then I need to go back to the start and read them with fresh eyes. Suddenly things they have done or said will make more sense and you can drop hints to the reader to underpin those thoughts.
We always say writing is rewriting, and no matter how much of a foundation you build at the start, how much planning and character research goes on, by the time you get to the end of 100k words (or thereabouts) you know these people like they are family (maybe better in some cases!) When you do know them, going back to the beginning and adding in the tiny details, the nuances that make them, them, enrich the text no end, and make them feel real for the reader. That’s what I’m aiming for, in every book.
© Sam Blake
About High Pressure
A gripping standalone thriller from the No.1 bestselling author of Little Bones and The Dark Room
As temperatures soar across Europe during the hottest summer for forty years, a series of hoax terrorist attacks is generating panic in London. Then a bus blows up on Oxford Street and the hoaxes have suddenly become real.
Student Brioni O’Brien has been desperately trying to contact her older sister since she unexpectedly returned early from travelling, so when Marissa’s bag is found near the site of the explosion, she fears the worst.
Teaming up with terrorism expert Anna Lockharte to search for Marissa, Brioni discovers that her sister had got herself into a very dangerous situation – and that now she and Anna could be caught in the fallout.
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