believable characters — motivation

Jennifer Neri posted on the problem of writing characters that are a different gender than the writer on her post, Gender – . While I haven’t had a problem with writing believable male characters, I do have a problem writing convincing child characters.

All this talk about characters and making them believable reminded me of what I need to do to make my character real. I need to know their motivations.

The way to write convincing characters of either gender is to first identify that character’s motivation. Think about your daily motivations: what is it that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? And no, I don’t mean your credit card bills. We all have some motivation for living, loving, moving through the day. It could be our family, our love of our jobs (no, really, stop laughing, some people do love their jobs), our writing, our religion, all of these things motivate us.

Our characters must have those desires, too. The difference is that when writing a novel, we want to narrow our character’s motivation to one or two things; otherwise, we’d have 250,000 word novels. I’m using two motivations for the protagonist in my current novel: his desire to set right a terrible wrong that he committed against another person, and his need to protect and shelter a child until he can deliver her safely to people who will protect her. Those are his two main motivations to face incredible odds against terrifying foes.

How he manages to fulfill those desires becomes my plot, and I must construct the path to get him from the beginning to the end. My antagonist and another main character have their motivations, too and they must compliment, but never overshadow my protagonist.

Adult characters are easy for me, because I understand adult motivations. Children now . . . ah, but don’t they have a slightly different set of priorities? I have a twelve-year-old girl, and I have to decide on her motivations. What is moving her forward? Fear? A desire to go home? A chance to see her brother? Hmmm, I’ll have to go back to that dreaded character sketch and look more deeply to see. I’ll also rely more heavily on members of my critique group who either have or who work with young girls.

There are many tools a writer can use to construct believable characters, but like location, location, location will sell a piece of real estate, motivation, motivation, motivation will help your reader identify with your characters.  That identification is what makes your characters believable.

Copyright 2009 Teresa Frohock

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4 Responses to believable characters — motivation

  1. jenniferneri says:

    What an interesting post! And I do believe you have the crux of it. It is the character’s motivation that keeps them consistent, and of course, their course will change as their motivation changes. Gee – the more I think about this writing stuff, the more I see how complex it all is. I usually let the sub-conscious do it all for me. And then, the editor me takes over for the grande finale, which usually goes on and on and on….

    • Teresa says:

      Absolutely, and it is that change in your character’s personality, whether it is an overt or sublime change in thinking or action, that makes the character real. You’re right that most of the time, writers do it unconsciously, but there are times when the characters can be sticking points. Next week I want to show how I like to use scene/sequel to get my characters started when they’re balking at the action.

  2. kaykaybe says:

    This one is hard for me, too. Luckily I don’t have any ‘normal’ children in my book, but I am very concerned about how my FBI agent will be received- is he tough enough? But he’s funny. Is it too much? And then he’s falling in love with this girl- but how fast can that really happen? What’s the balance/progression between physical attraction and actual love? [insert video of my head spinning- like the exorcist] Thanks for opening up this topic!

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! I like the image of the spinning head! I’m feeling your pain! 😉

      Cops are hard to write, but from the ones I know personally, they all have a sense of humor, and it’s very dark.

      Another thing you mentioned would make a for a good topic down the road, Kelly, and that’s pacing. How do you know when enough is enough? When I have gone on too long or when is there not enough information. Hmmm, you guys really make me think, and I like that.

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