Give Your Characters Motive

Do not write passive bystanders but remember characters in fiction must want something.

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There are seven different stories in the world, they say. Well, so what? There are sixty-four positions in the Kama Sutra, but they all amount to the same essential mash-up; a toe pointed there, a wrist flexed here, hardly makes for a different outcome.

Really there’s one story in the world: someone wants something.

Do they get it, though? That’s the exciting bit. That’s where the conflict and drama lies. As writers we tend to be very good at passively observing characters, being—as we usually are—quiet, passive, observing types ourselves. But characters who are pleasant passive bystanders will never sing and linger in our readers’ minds. The characters we remember from fiction are those who twitch feverish with desire: Scarlett O’Hara, Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Macbeth, Silas Marner, Jude the Obscure. These are characters suffused and quivering with longing, whether for love, money, power, revenge, prestige, so much so that in some instances their very name has come to function as a metonym for a characteristic—Shylock for the money-hungry, Uriah Heep for the ambitious. This burning yearning, this drive to achieve, makes us identify with a character, fear for them, cheer for them, for we are all, as Freud suggested, little throbbing bundles of desire—even the most sophisticated and cynical among us. In more modern fiction, the desire tends to be less epic, less well-articulated and clearly defined than in Shakespeare, yet the urge to action remains as pronounced and explicit.

When you create your characters—before or after, whichever works for you, always after for me, I write by the seat of my pants—be sure you can fill in this sentence: (character) is an (adjective) (noun) who wants (motivation). Hamlet is a dithering Prince who wants revenge. Fagin is a sinister crook who wants money. Both men are subtle, complex characters who offer the reader so much more, yet this is their essence, the reason they are have entered the canon and will forever be remembered, this one simple instinct which leaves them swimmy-headed with longing.

Having decided in a general way what your character most wants, try to decide what that desire might look like in a given situation. If they seek social status, how will this lead them to behave at a party? How will they dress, what will be their chosen topics of conversation? In whose eyes do they particularly seek to command respect, and how will this lead them to behave to those they believe their inferiors? And so forth. What a character deeply desires will manifest itself in a concrete way through their words, actions, and appearance, right through to the food they choose, the way they laugh, the cut of their suit. Elaborate these details and you have a character, riddled with want, and thus, tigerishly vibrant.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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