Write-a-Scene Writing Prompt: Character Motivation

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When I was in college, I loved hanging out in front of the main student center and getting in some face time. Sure there were other places to hang out, the fish bowl over at Uris Library, the different college quads or Libe Slope, but Willard Straight Hall was the place to be if you wanted to read a book, catch some rays, check out fraternity/sorority activities, engage in campus protests, meet friends for lunch, people watch or just hang until your next class.

I loved to sit on the stone wall and make up stories about students who caught my eye. It was an easy way to spend fifteen minutes, watching the same people on a daily basis. Students traveled in groups, joked around, acted sullen, walked by themselves, were happy, angry or sad. Or maybe a person didn’t show up for a day or two and I wondered, sometimes worried, whether all was well. What in the world were they wearing, how do they walk, do they cross their arms, what’s with the annoying way of flipping back the hair? And so it went on.

There’s a sense of recognition, of familiarity, when you’re on the same schedule as other students and observe their mannerisms everyday. Watch people and you can tell who you’d admire, feel sorry for, or relieved you don’t know–all on a superficial basis, by the way.

If you don’t have time for your own bit of face time, have no fear. Watch a movie or television show. There’s no need to spend days and months observing people. Now, through the magic of cameras, we have the self-gratification of watching how people act and react in a half-hour or one-hour tv series, reality based show, or two-hour movie. Characters have never been so interesting and it’s fascinating to see what makes them tick and how they show their emotions.

I’ve always been intrigued with what motivates people and this, combined with my love of books and face time at the Straight, helped shape my ideas of what makes interesting, complex people on paper. Careful observation helps me create my characters when I’m writing, for I don’t want a character in name only. As you all know, that’s boring. I want a character that lives and breathes and makes the reader want to love him or hate her or be his friend or want to be her. As a writer, I need to be respectful about the time and patience that’s required to create a character, not to mention plot. But remember, nobody except your mother is going to willingly read hundreds of pages to see if they’re going to like your character. There’s a reason why agents request the first ten pages. Use this space wisely to show character AND plot.

A couple years ago, one of my critique buddies, P.J. Hoover, shared an awesome plotting exercise which included character motivations. Character motivations and plotting are so closely tied in together, that when you have a moment, I urge you to try this exercise. I’m not a huge fan of writing exercises since I’d rather be in the forefront and focus on what I have to write–which is why I created the Write-a-Scene Writing Prompts–but I’m telling you, P.J.’s exercise will save you tons of time.

In part of this exercise, you need to write out what the character needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses are. Once you have it clear on paper what these are, every time you write a scene, you can make sure these three things drive every decision and conflict so it ensures the believability of your character and what needs to be done to create growth in your character.

Some people may disagree with me, but I’m a big believer that a lot of these character needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses come from the character’s background–their family, friends, religion (if any), race, gender. Understand the background, the backstory, because this is where the writer can add depth to the character. Is your character one who will shrug off what was ingrained in him/her as a child and create a new future or one who will fall in line with what’s expected? Will your character believe they deserve better, sink in the muck or stay status quo?

It doesn’t mean all the backstory needs to show up in your book. It’s a huge no-no. But, as a writer, you need to know and understand your character’s backstory so you can create the evolution of your character’s personality, motivations, weaknesses, and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the backstory and probably won’t want to know about the character’s past until they care about the present.

The easiest way to add in backstory is through dialogue or a casual reference inserted into a paragraph. Another way writers add in backstory is by adding a few paragraphs to pique the reader’s interest.  Of course, there’s always flashback, which I think is hard to write well. Since there are people more knowledgeable than I am about these sorts of things, I’ll lead you to Through the Tollbooth’s post of the best way to write a flashback.

Write-a-Scene Writing Prompt: Remember, if you want to create a complex character, delve into your character’s backstory to see how your MC’s needs, desires/motivations and weaknesses developed. Use this to help plan your character’s growth in your book.

Write the scene where your MC can’t let go of the past to move forward. Is your MC still stuck on an old boyfriend, worried about a family curse, tormented by a family secret? Only you know your MC’s backstory and motivations, so use this knowledge as you write your scene(s).

Remember: Avoid as much internal thought as possible. It will stall your story. Instead, drive your story forward and write with plot, motivation, desires, fears, emotion and dialogue in mind.

Make your words count!

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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