As an instructor, I find myself sometimes watching interactions between students and/or instructors. I think people should always work to assume the best motivation. Like most humans, I fail to do this more often than I’d like to admit, but it also brings to mind something authors must do.
If you want a character to be compelling, you have to make that character’s motivation clear. This is exponentially more important when the character is very different than the reader. The more a reader can relate to a character, the more forgiveness a reader might have. I think some people might debate this, but I stand by the comment.
Establishing believability and connecting to readers is critical. I’ve read plenty of books that weren’t exactly wonderful, but I could stick with it because I was invested in the character. I’ve read books that were honestly well crafted, but I couldn’t stand them because the characters weren’t interesting at all.
For me, that all starts with a clear idea on what that character wants.
Now how does one demonstrate that? We’re supposed to show and not tell. Sure, it might work for Naruto to keep saying, “I’m going to be the greatest Hokage one day!” But while that was a dream, and there were times that motivation helped, his real motivation was bonds. The role of Hokage was a means to an end. So say it as he might, watch how Naruto reacts when someone is treated unfairly or disrespected. Watch how he reacts to any threat to those he loves.
So the technique I’m going to share with you today is establishing motivation by conflict or complication. Try taking something tat is desirable to the normal person, then set it as an obstacle to your character’s main goal. Maybe your character wants to be a millionaire. He wants the associate position and the paycheck that comes with it. One might establish the conflict as that of his wife and family who miss him. It’d be a horrid sinful thing to do, but if that guy were to divorce his wife to keep the job, you’d know his priorities in an instant. Yes, you’d hate him, but you’d understand him better and form expectations for him.
On a happier note, take that same situation, only this time, the guy walks into his office to learn he’s earned the big promotion. They’ll need extra time from him. They have plans to send him to an exotic country with a massive expense account to bring in new clients. The sky’s the limit. One day, he might make full partner. In that moment, all he can think about is how much he’ll miss his wife. He turns to promotion down, even getting fired because he won’t back down. Again, you see his priorities clearly.
So the trick is to take the character’s main goal and set it against another goal most average people would value. We do this in life. I talk about it all the time. People tell me they want to be a writer, but they can’t find the time. I can appreciate the ambition, but there’s probably something else they’re doing. It’s more important than writing if they won’t set it aside to get writing done. Again, I’m not advocating cruelty to loved ones, but maybe not so many video games. Maybe give up a single hour of sleep a night.
When you see a person sacrificing for what they love, you see the love.
Try this out with your characters and see how it affects your story.
Thanks for reading,