What motivates your characters?

One of the things we discovered in the Sunday Writing Circle was that it appeared easier to write if we had a clear idea of what the main character’s motivation was. So, did they want to ‘get away with murder’, did they want to ‘get credit for something they hadn’t done’ or did they simply want to ‘find out where that noise was coming from’? Given these prompts we all found it that little bit easier to write something from scratch.

I am now thinking about this in the context of my own novel. Do I really understand what motivates my characters? In some cases, perhaps. I know why my protagonist, Dr Whalley, is having an affair with his nurse: because his relationship with his wife is constrained by the fact that they can not have children. Plus, Nurse Betsy is hot and ‘forbidden’ and therefore exciting – something missing in his life up until that point.

But there are other actions my characters perform that I am struggling with.
– Why does 9yr old Cecelia make friends with Madeline – the outcast in school?
– Why doesn’t James go searching for his new bride when she goes missing?
– And why on earth does Dr Whalley like to stroke his moustache in times of insecurity?

Without knowing the answers to these types of questions, I don’t think I can adequately ask my readers to believe in the characters or the story itself. Their actions have to make sense and although I may have written them with a life of their own, I need to ensure that their motivations for leading the story they way that they do is believable.

So, I’ve created a page entitled ‘Motivations’ for each of my main characters in the Biography Book and I’m mind-mapping all the questions I can think of where their reasoning for a particular action may need consideration. It’s a list of ‘why’s really: why would my character do that? These are the things I might need to justify during the rewrite.

A selection of questions on what motivates my protagonist

A selection of questions on what motivates my protagonist

It has the potential to become huge in the context of the entire novel, but I do think it’s just as important for me to understand why my character might choose to be friends with one individual as much as it is to know why they made the decision to sell their newborn to a rich couple who can’t adopt. I might not have to explain every decision process to my readers, but I sure as hell need to know why they do what they do. Otherwise what defence do I have if any beta readers come back to me and say ‘Why would Cecelia want to apologise to Madeline anyway? She didn’t do anything!’ and my only answer is: ‘she has to, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t work’.

The only real reason the novel won’t work is if the writer doesn’t really understand (or care about) the characters well enough to make their choices seem real. So: do you know what motivates your characters?


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