Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Rewards and Motivation

Naturally, the first thing I think of on the topic of Rewards and Motivation is the classic Old West poster: WANTED: (Criminal X) REWARD. In fact, that can easily become one of the main motivators in a story, but it's not the only one. What motivates characters in a story? Revenge is an all-too-commonly-used motivator. But beyond that, what do we get down to? Moral happiness? Personal connection? Virtue? How is virtue defined?


Kimberly mentioned how villains are necessarily an inversion of the motivations of a protagonist. She mentioned an instance where they use the motivations of a "good guy" but in the wrong way (cross-applied). She had a scenario where bad guys wanted to change the status quo because the status quo would lead to the end of the world. And yes, she said, the bad guys were self-centered and fighting each other, but also having to work together.

Often we talk about motivators in terms of the Carrot and the Stick. "The End of the World" is a pretty big stick, but isn't usually enough to keep a story fully engaging, because it can be very disconnected from what a character cares about.

You need Big Stakes, but in many ways Personal Stakes are more important. There's the (very clich├ęd and problematic) "get the girl," also, "save somebody" like a relative or a friend.

People are complicated. "People operate against type all the time simply because they're people."

If you want people to connect with your story, it's powerful to have the reader empathize with the character's goals, but it doesn't always need to be direct empathy where the reader says "I have wanted this exact same thing." The connection can be indirect.

Often, we can have highly gender-influenced ideas of what makes an appropriate motivator for someone (such as those listed above). But that isn't necessary. I spoke about my character Tagaret, whose primary motivator at the start of the story is "to escape by means of art." Because many of us are writers, we could relate to that! But I mentioned an instance of someone who had thought that motivation was too "feminine" (we disagreed strongly). There is also the motivation to do something to create change. It can also be expressed in more or less gendered term.

Different motivators and rewards can be used more typically in different genres.

We talked about the motivation of money, which is really a means to an end. For most characters, money isn't inherently motivating for itself, but for what it is used to do, like getting food or shelter. Food is a very basic animal motivator, but can be used to great effect in stories, such as Janice Hardy's The Shifter or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games.

A character can also be motivated to win a competition with someone else. Kim noted that this motivator was quite commonly used in YA stories she's read.

Sex can be used as a motivator. You have to think about it carefully, though, because you don't want it to seem false and "added in."

Romance and relationships can be used as powerful motivation, though we agreed that in the Romance genre, they weren't typically used as primary motivators, but as secondary ones (at least early in the stories). Very often Romance stories will set up a situation in which the drive to achieve a romance runs counter to a set of other goals held by the two protagonists.

Power rewards are very common. I mentioned how in my book, the main goal is the competition to become Heir to the Throne. This has been the core motivator for a great many stories besides mine! People will also strive to achieve wealth and influence.

In fact, the ostensible reward may just be symbolic of power held over others. I mentioned a case from my kids' school were a girl would bring in fruit roll-ups, which she would then offer to one person, and then "change her mind" and offer to other people, so that she could cause people to vie against one another for her favor. This led us to the insight that when gifts are being given, it's good to consider the motivation of the giver as well as the receiver.

Sometimes, just plain relief can be a huge motivator. Relief from pain might be one example of that. Relief from a form of psychological discomfort, such as that suffered in obsessive-compulsive disorder, might be another (and I've seen it used in more than one book!). Escape from a trap is another, as might be escape from torture. Darth Vader uses killing to "find new ways to motivate them."

Again we come back to threat versus reward, stick versus carrot.

We listed out: threat motivation, reward motivation, competitive motivation, pleasure motivation as being very basic motivations. Most of the time, though, you can build complex things on top of these, and those complex things are given value by the culture of the world you are working in. The motivator of creating a reputation, or being shamed, can be hugely important, but they take widely different forms.

You can tailor a form of motivation to the fictional world you're working in. In order to make sure that a reader grasps it well enough to empathize, though, it's important to set it in a context where it can make sense - to "construct what normal means." Clearly state the motivators you are working with. When an individual possesses idiosyncratic motivations, make sure to define and construct them explicitly in the context of that person's psychology.

A character's own self-concept, and its integrity, can be huge motivators. "Am I a good person?"

We talked about the phenomenon of fat-shaming, and how that behavior can be motivated by seemingly counter-intuitive means. When people become angry at a fat person who feels comfortable in her own skin, it often is because they themselves have been fat-shamed extensively and invested a lot of their time and suffering in struggling against being fat, and their self-concept feels at risk if they consider the idea that all that time and suffering might have been pointless or unnecessary.

When you are working with a story and considering people's goals and potential paths, keep in mind that there is not usually only one path forward - some paths lead to some bad things, others lead to other bad things, and the good that comes out of them can be ambiguous.

I mentioned the idea of positive and negative politeness, because it relates in some interesting ways to the idea of motivations. "Positive" politeness is behavior that relies on the idea that solidarity is valued, and behaviors that express solidarity are thus more accepted. "Negative" politeness relies on the underlying concept of autonomy, and the idea that politeness is honoring a person's space and not breaching their walls. Because they are based on opposite concepts of value, bad things can happen when they cross.

Context is really important. In any given interaction, figuring out what the other person values, and what motivates them, is important for success. Those underlying assumptions of value vary widely depending on who is interacting and in what context.

Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion!

This week's hangout will be tomorrow, 6/29/16 at 1pm Pacific/4pm Eastern on Google Hangouts. We'll be meeting with guest author Bo Bolander to talk about her multiply award-nominated story, "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead." I hope you can join us!

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