Proper Character Motivation…Or Avoiding the “Why the Hell Did She Do That?”

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I mentioned earlier this week that I’m reading through Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict. (This book rocks.) Today I thought I’d talk about properly motivating your characters.

Remember watching one of those B-horror movies where the girl hears a noise in the dark, scary basement and goes down alone, with no weapon, to check it out? Remember screaming at the television, “You’re going to die, beeyatch!”

The reason scenes like these are so unbelievable is because the character is acting in a way most people normally wouldn’t, without any discernable reason for it. In other words, she lacks proper motivation.

There needs to be a believable reason why she would go into that dark basement alone and weaponless, and the reason must be urgent. Maybe her toddler is teetered on the rickety stairs, in imminent danger of falling and breaking his neck. Or her puppy has already taken a tumble and is lying on the basement floor, whimpering in pain.

Adding proper motivation to your characters allows your reader to suspend disbelief and get drawn into the story. If your character is going to act against his or her own interests or do something he or she wouldn’t normally do, there must be a darn good reason for it. The motivation must be larger-than-life.

So what’s the best way to test your motivations, to learn whether they are important enough to sustain the character’s action? Well, it’s reader response. This is where critique partners or beta readers are invaluable, because they can see the manuscript in a way you’ll never be able to.

In one of my manuscripts, the hero is trailing the heroine because he may at some point be ordered to kill her. Now that doesn’t make him seem very empathetic. So what do you do to create empathy in a situation like this? Well, in my case, the hero‘s actions are all done with the goal of saving the world from destruction. His otherwise reprehensible actions can be excused because his motivations are strong and inherently good.

Can you think of a book or movie that just wowed you due to the characters’ strong motivations? (I’m thinking Avatar off the top of my head.) Or maybe it’s a book that you’ve written? If so, I’d love to hear a bit about it. Smile


15 thoughts on “Proper Character Motivation…Or Avoiding the “Why the Hell Did She Do That?”

    Lynn Rush said:
    December 10, 2010 at 9:29 am

    This is great. Nice illustration of motivation. And you’re right, Avatar is a good example.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 9:39 am

      Thanks, Lynn. Yeah, I loved that movie and seeing how Jake Sully got from his old life to his new one.

    Katalina Leon said:
    December 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Wonderful post Rosalie,
    I’m going to get in my time machine and mention Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. Jane’s character is so practical and forward thinking but when she is forced to flee Edward’s Rochester’s household with nothing and fling herself into a dire situation-we understand her chaotic mindset completely. As a reader we absolutely don’t want to see Jane suffer but in context of the story, we clearly understands why she must.
    It’s a triumph of Bronte’s honest writing because the morals and the situation belong to another time where modern couples would have no conflict yet the struggle feels real and fresh in 2010, because there is a timeless psychological truth motivating Jane’s ordeal.
    XXOO Kat

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 10:56 am

      Wow Kat, what a great example!

      Margaret L. Carter said:
      December 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      Excellent example of motivation, but I completely disagree that a modern couple would “have no conflict.” You wouldn’t be outraged to find out on your wedding day that your prospective husband is already married? To a sick woman he is arguably treating with cruel neglect?

    R. Ann Siracusa said:
    December 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Deb Dixon is the master. You can’t go wrong if you follow her advice. I must point out, though, that sometimes in “real life” people do things that don’t make sense, but in a novel you can’t get away with that. Novels are not “real life.”
    I used one of my own experiences in Egypt in the first chapter of a novel, and a reviewer said, “This is totally impossible. These are educated women. They would never do that.” Yeah? Well, what can I say. We did. Fortunately, nothing bad happened, as it did in the novel.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      Uh…yeah. I can personally vouch for this. I do things that don’t make sense all the time. 🙂

    Rita Hestand said:
    December 10, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I’ll go along with the idea that people do things that are downright stupid sometimes.
    But why…..I have to ask….does the heroine in all these horror movie go into a house like in Halloween and not turn the light on? They never do? Have you noticed.
    I am not going into a something spooky and questionable without turning the freaking light on. But that’s just me.

    And then there are situations in our books sometimes where when someone does something really stupid, they are called on it and made fun of.

    You do have to admit, it gets a reaction when someone does something really stupid in a movie. The audience reacts to it.

    I had a funny indident in Heart of the Wild where she was stripping off, inviting the hero to take her (just to get his goat) when someone came to the door, they both scrambled for her bra. One of my readers said I can’t believe they were looking for her bra. In the book, they didn’t find it till too late and it was obvious when the door opened and it was his brother and fiancee that the two of them were doing something. So there are reasons to be stupid to some degree. It became a calamity to find the bra. Forget she was stripping, forget he didn’t take the advantage.

    So I don’t know, I guess there is a reason for everything. And I guess the reason is reaction. But still, I’d turn the light on.

    Love and blessings

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      You make a good point, Rita. Not every reader is going to love every situation or think it’s believable. We are all different, after all. I remember reading a post by one of my fave authors, Teresa Medeiros, in which she said that she is TSTL (too stupid to live) just like some of her heroines. It cracked me up, but what she was saying was right on point. People don’t always make the smartest decisions. That’s what makes us people. Expecting characters in books to always make smart decisions might be asking too much. 🙂

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    December 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    So…hmmmm….I try my best to give my characters motivation for everything they do. I guess I would have to say…The Eye of the Needle, the movie and the book – both protagonists (and one is evil yet still a protagonist) have understandable and realistic reasons for behaving as they do.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 2:46 pm

      This is the first I’ve heard of that one, Julia. I’ll have to check it out. 🙂

    Paris Brandon said:
    December 10, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Great post. I love Deb Dixon’s book and try to storyboard my books using her GMC guidelines. As for movies or books–does anyone remember Tremors with Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon? Very clear, believable motivation and the women didn’t fall down and break a heel when they ran for it. And the sci-fi movie Serenity was awesome even if you weren’t familiar with the TV show Firefly.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

      Yes, Serenity is a great example! It really wrapped up a lot of the questions/motivations from the show.

    Ciara Knight said:
    December 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Deb Dixon is from my local group. She’s awesome! Nice illustrations.

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