Monday, June 15, 2009

The Importance of Character Motivation

When I read a book the thing that keeps me going is the sense of drive, and that sense of drive comes directly from the main character. That person's goals, why he or she wants them, what happens if he or she doesn't get them.

This is almost entirely separate from the plot, i.e. the sequence of events.

My novel has been written. And it has been rewritten. And it is currently being edited again. In all this, the sequence of minor events might have one or two things added to it, but the sequence of major events changes not at all.

What changes is what these events mean to the protagonist, and how that propels her on to the next piece. It's that propulsion that matters: that's the drive. That's why I care about reading further.

In my current sequence of edits, I'm trying to address a very big but very nebulous problem: critiquer dissatisfaction with the ending. Nebulous because it's not something you can point a finger at a piece of text and fix. So I've been going back and tracking the character motivation through the story, and I've made two key reversals.

1. In the character of the romantic lead, Étienne. He doesn't speak much, in order to protect himself, but he needs to speak to the main character, Chloe. In the last draft he wanted to stay quiet, and did most of the time, but when he spoke was very purposeful and passionate. As a result, his acts came across as too calculating - problem. So I reversed his motivation. Now he really wants to speak, but he's been protecting himself with silence for so long that he has trouble when he tries.

The effect of this change is huge. It changes what he says and how he says it, but he's still capable of saying the things he needs to (things he said in the last draft that are critical to the plot). It doesn't change anything about his actions - but suddenly he doesn't come across as calculating any more. From the standpoint of his relationship to Chloe, this is a big improvement.

2. In an event propelled by the main character. At a certain point she goes to dinner with her mother and starts telling her stories. The effect of this is a change in their interaction that allows her to resolve a key conflict between them (at least for now). In the last draft she had the idea to tell stories, and after things had changed she said it felt like magic, with a sense of deep satisfaction. Oddly enough, this was a huge problem. So I reversed her motivation completely. Now she has the idea to try to imitate magic to change her mother, and therefore tells her stories. When things change she's surprised and pleased to get what she wants, but she also understands that it doesn't feel like magic.

The difference this makes is critical. Now the satisfaction is replaced with a vague sense of insufficiency - and this is what allows her to progress on successfully to the next sequence of events.

It's worth taking at least one entire read-through of your manuscript just to address the question of character motivation and drive. If it isn't there, readers will lose momentum and stop - and we don't want that. You may be surprised to find that a complete reversal of motivation in one place or another makes little difference at all to the events you need for the plot to hold together. But it may just be the key to making the story feel alive.