Complicated Motivations: Doing Work with Our Characters before The Writing Begins

For those of you following our lawnmower saga, I thought you might be interested to know that Cathy and I decided to order a 38-inch-cut rider from Ryobi. Yep, we’re going electric. Two hours of cutting time on a single charge, no gas, no oil, no spark plug. It’s supposed to arrive by June 1.

So decision made, we decided to go to the garden center yesterday in search of a couple of tomato plants. Again, we had choices to make. Darned life, always full of choices. I like an orange or yellow tomato, and we set out to find one. A nearby customer, overhearing our conversation, showed us that section of the plants. We didn’t know this gentleman, but we were grateful for his assistance.

Which leads me to wonder. If this were a piece of fiction, who might that man be. He’d be a different man, of course, depending on what he was carrying with him. Was he a widower, perhaps? Had he just recently lost his wife? Or was he a bachelor, never married? Or a man under criminal investigation? Or an FBI informant? The possibilities, of course, are limitless for a fiction writer imagining a character. When this man said, “I saw some Lemon Boys right over here,” do you hear him slightly differently given each of the choices I listed? The grieving widower, the lonely bachelor, the guilty criminal, the eager-to-talk stool pigeon. Each would have a different motivation for pointing out the Lemon Boys. Each would say his line with a different inflection, given his particular past and his motivation for speaking.

The lesson for writers is to pay attention to our characters’ histories, what they’re carrying with them in the present, and their motivations for the choices they make. If we can complicate those motives, all the better. If the grieving widower is, for instance, simultaneously longing for comfort and resentful of those who can give it—those who in his mind have been untouched by loss, those who stroll with their partners through the garden center—then we have a memorable character made up of contradictions.

Try it for yourselves. Start with a simple action. A character goes to a garden center in search of a tomato plant (or wherever you decide to have them go and whatever you decide to have them search for). Introduce another character. Give them a particular past. Make them contradictory. Give them conflicting emotions. Let them act, either in speech or deed, from their complicated motivation.

Conceiving a narrative is often a matter of putting interesting characters into motion. Doing some pre-planning with characterization can lead to richer interactions, richer characters, richer plots. Don’t be afraid of making choices and don’t be afraid of requiring your characters to make choices. Look for the complicated ones. Nothing should be easy. Complicated motivations create an interesting story that leads to a memorable resolution, the sort that, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “reveals the truth that reality obscures.”

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