Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Are Your Characters Motivated?

By Gretchen McNeil

JH: Today we have YA author Gretchen McNeil here to help us--and our character--get motivated.

Gretchen is an opera singer, writer and clown. Her YA horror/paranormal POSSESS debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011. Her second novel, TEN – YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – will be released September 18, 2012. Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4's Code Monkeys and she currently sings with the LA-based circus troupe www.cirqueberzerk.com. Gretchen is also a founding member of the vlog group YARebels where she can be seen as "Monday."

Take it away Gretchen...

Writing is a craft (though it hurts me to use that word – it's just so pretentious!). Just like any other artistic expression, there's a learning curve involved in writing, not only learning out TO write, but learning how YOU write.

That's the key, I think – learning how you write. Because there isn't necessarily a right or a wrong way to "write", since every reader will have their own subjective point of view on what they like and don't like in a novel. But for my process – the writing process specific to me as a writer – there's definitely a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, a pass and a fail.

I started out life as a performing artist – an opera singer, to be exact. There's a right and a wrong involved there as well, just as subjective to the audience as writing can be. You also have to learn how YOU sing, versus how someone else sings, and how YOU tell your story on stage.

So perhaps with all this subjectivity floating around, all this emphasis on taking the reins of your own process, it's no wonder I took to writing. It was a parallel move.

Enough of the setup. What I really wanted to talk about is the crux of my writing process, of my craft so to speak, the emphasis of my ability as a storyteller. This is my main focus when I write, the thing that influences plot, that deviates from my outlines, that makes me crazy and ultimately, creates a better novel…and it comes directly from my background as a singing actress:

Character motivation.

That sounds so simple, right? Character wants something. Character has an obstacle in her way. Character must find way to overcome obstacle into order to get what she wants. Simple! Basic! When you're onstage, you're thinking about these basic points all the time. There's the overarching want – the main goal of your character for the opera – and the varying wants, needs, and obstacles that spring up throughout, and must be overcome in order to achieve the main goal.

(If I just confused the hell out of you, I suggest you read Sanford Meisner On Acting – it's amazing.)

Onstage, everything you do must be motivated by these goals. When you cross from one side of the stage to the other, even if you have to do so because the director said, "Cross downstage right on the fourth bar after the cadenza," you have to create a motivation for that move. Why? Because you're going to lose your audience if you don't. If they sense for a moment that you're just going through the motions, that you're not completely engaged in the storytelling process, you'll lose them.

For me, it's the same thing with writing. I don't want my characters doing things that aren't properly motivated – by their goals, by their obstacles, by their character traits. If a character goes to a house party the same day she finds out her mom has cancer, that's got to properly motivated. Maybe she's in denial. Maybe she cursed her mom out a few weeks ago and is now feeling guilty and is looking for a way to drown away that guilt. Maybe the father of the guy throwing the party is the country's most famous oncologist specializing in the kind of cancer her mom's been diagnosed with. Etc., etc.

There are so many choices, which lead in so many directions. The key is that I actually MAKE a choice! My character just doesn't go to the party because I need to have a party scene, or because I need to have her meet the cute boy love interest. She needs a damn good reason for showing up at that party, and I make sure I give her one.

Someone asked me recently, why I had Bridget, the main character in POSSESS, say something in a scene early on in the book. I explained exactly why Bridget made the comment, which was important to set up later action on her part. The person who asked was surprised I had a logical explanation, assuming that I'd just made an arbitrary choice. Au contraire, mon frère!

In my books, no one crosses downstage right without a reason. Ever.

About Possess

Fifteen-year-old Bridget Liu just wants to be left alone: by her over-protective mom, by Matt Quinn, the cute son of a local police sergeant, and by the eerie voices she can suddenly and inexplicably hear. Unfortunately for Bridget, the voices are demons—and Bridget possesses the rare ability to banish them back to whatever hell they came from. Literally.

Terrified to tell her friends or family about this new power, Bridget confides in San Francisco’s senior exorcist, Monsignor Renault. The monsignor enlists her help in increasingly dangerous cases of demonic possession, but just as she is starting to come to terms with her freakish new role, Bridget receives a startling message from one of the demons. And when one of her oldest friends is killed, Bridget realizes she’s in deeper than she ever thought possible. Now she must unlock the secret to the demons’ plan before someone else close to her winds up dead—or worse, the human vessel for a demon king.


  1. THIS:
    My character just doesn't go to the party because I need to have a party scene, or because I need to have her meet the cute boy love interest. She needs a damn good reason for showing up at that party, and I make sure I give her one.

    Good observation. Sometimes - at least for me- motivations aren't as clear in the middle sections of the story.

  2. "My character just doesn't go to the party because I need to have a party scene, or because I need to have her meet the cute boy love interest. She needs a damn good reason for showing up at that party, and I make sure I give her one."

    Well, what can you do to SHOW, not tell, "The Damn Good Reason" without sounding overdone, but also avoid the dreaded, "Coincidental Syndrome?"

  3. Taurean, I'm not sure what Gretchen does, but for me, I look at the character motivations. If it's the POV it's easier, because they can think about why. In the party example, maybe they need some fun (show their day/week being stressful so this is a logical goal) or maybe they need to track down a friend (show the problem with the friend and mention she's going to that party). Stuff like that.

    If the character is focused on something else entirely, has goals to do other things, and she suddenly gets a call to go to a party and goes -- that's when it feels forced. But if you set up reasons for this choice to make sense, the reader can see why someone acts as they do.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Janice, I'm just glad my inquiry made sense, sometimes I'm vague to avoid getting off on the wrong foot.