Muse Monday: What’s My Motivation?

We’re back on the horse again. Kind of. The Mars novel is in the home stretch now, and I’m still trying to figure out how the semester can best be made manageable, so things might still be iffy for a while, but dammit, I’m making an effort. That’s probably the most one can ask.

And if one were to ask more I’d be all like “What? I’m trying. Piss off.” So.

So what’s been on my mind lately? Well, a lot of things. But mostly what’s been troubling me most with this book is motivation.

I don’t remember the first time the motivation of a character was an issue for me. I do know that it’s been an ongoing issue. I remember that there was a point –  really, a series of points – where I must have sat back in the middle of writing something and struggled with the realization that these people were not my puppets: I couldn’t just move them into whatever positions I wanted, at least not if I wanted a story that held together around them. They needed to have reasons for why they did the things they did, and those reasons had to be understandable to the average human being.

Anyone who’s tried to do it probably knows this: This is not as obvious as it might seem, and it is a lot harder than it might seem.

Understandable motivations fall under the blanket/umbrella/other overarching-type-thing of good writing being fundamentally truth-telling — when something just isn’t believable, you lose your reader. Faster-than-light travel, fairies, dragons, aliens, dinosaurs flying F-14s — all of these things might be believable if they’re presented correctly. Good writing is spell-casting. But the spell is fragile. It can be broken far too easily. And your reader lifting their head from the page and making a face and going, “Wait, why the hell did she do that?” scatters the spell to the four winds.

I’ve put books down for lesser crimes.

I think this is also why plotting ahead of time can be a trap sometimes, useful though it is — or at least, plotting that isn’t entirely character-driven (and at that point I’m back to thinking that it makes more sense to just write the damn book already and let the characters themselves take you where they want to go). Plotting from events or ideas or really anything that isn’t character runs the risk of setting up a structure into which you have to make your characters fit; the problem with that is that characters are slippery things, as well as being annoyingly un-static, and they tend to change a lot over the course of a long project. Or, if they don’t change, they reveal themselves; like any person you spend a lot of time with, you come to know them better, and some things will naturally surprise you.

And then, all of a sudden, they don’t want to do this thing you planned out for them weeks ago. Why should I? they will ask, because they are callous bastards, but they also have the virtue of being honest with you when most other people won’t. Why would I want to do that? No, seriously. Why?

But the entire plot hinges on them doing this thing, you will protest. That’s what the entire book is about.

And now you have a problem.

There are a variety of ways out of it. You can plow doggedly ahead and force your character into an action or a series of actions that you’re just not sure about, and worry about it later. Or you can try to negotiate with your character, comb through what you know about them in the hopes of finding something that allows for a convincing reason. Or you can abandon your own ideas and allow the character to direct their own action. Or you can do some combination of one or more of these. It’s not that running into this problem is a book-killer, is what I’m saying. But it’s easier to avoid it if you can.

If you find out how, by the way, please let me know.

Oh, and I should just add that I’m leaving aside the characters whose motivations are murky and mysterious for a reason, because those are often a lot of fun. If you’re not sure why your character is doing something, by all means, follow them and see if they’ll let you in on the secret. But even in those cases, I think it’s generally safer to let the characters hold the reins. It might not feel safer; after all, it involves you giving up a measure of control.

But if you have control issues, you’re going to run into writing trouble in many more places besides motivation, so personally I’d start dealing with that now.

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