Next up in the mailbag...
Q: Having read lots of blogs, opinions and books on character motivations, I still have trouble developing "fresh" goals and motives -- many seem to be repetitive (such as a character seeking love, or redemption for causing the injury / death of a loved one in the past).There's so much pressure on writers to find the fresh, original idea, that we often forget there are only so many plots to beginning with. Depending on which theory, that can be anywhere from two to thirty-six, though the classic number is seven. (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth)
All characters are going to want something that other people have written about before. The general goals and motivations are not going to be fresh, because those themes are what makes a story universal and relatable. No matter who you are, you can relate to someone trying to find love of righting a past wrong.
It's not so much about creating fresh goals and motivations, but finding fresh ways to illustrate those goals and motivations. The fun is in seeing how an individual writer comes up with a new take on one of these eternal ideas.
It helps to think of those larger goals as themes. That's the bigger idea, but a plot isn't about "finding love" or "seeking justice." It's the specific actions that bring about those thematic ideas. It's how a character finds love or gets justice that makes it feel fresh. It's also where, as a new setting can add life to a common goal/theme.
(More on story goals vs plot goals here)
To keep your goals and motivations fresh, try looking for unique details to wrap around those universal themes. It's the specifics that will feel fresh and give new life to classic goals.
Let's look at the oldest and most common goals: finding love. The highest-selling genre out there (romance) is dedicated to this one single goal. This has been around so long, it was old when Shakespeare wrote about it.
Take Romeo & Juliet. Classic forbidden love story that has been remade over and over again. Two people who shouldn't be together want to be together. Outside forces are trying hard to keep them apart. But look a little closer at how various writers have made this goal fresh:
- West Side Story put it in the setting of rivals gangs. Family loyalty as seen through the lens of gang members in a modern setting.
- Warm Bodies put it in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, and then to further twist it, made love the "cure" for zombies. Instead of love being the cause of death and downfall (lovers killing themselves instead of being together) love is what saves everyone. It heals both "houses" symbolized by the zombies and the humans.
- Tiffany Reisz gave us an example last week about putting it into a horseracing setting. Warring houses become rival stables, and the life and death stakes are shifted to a more personal level.
(More on adding a new twist to an old idea)
The goal of finding love exists in all of these in different ways. The motivations will also be similar, but that's another area you can customize to your story. Your characters will be motivated by things specific to them. What they have to do to find love (or get justice, or seek revenge, or live the dream) will change depending on what setting, world, and plot you put them in, as well as who the other characters are.
How my protagonist searches for love will be different from how yours does it. The obstacles to finding it will vary. The ways in which they solve those obstacles will be different. The ways they handle failure to solve those obstacles will be different, as will the consequences if they fail.
If your protagonist wants to find love and does so in the same way a dozen other protagonist have done, then yes, it'll feel old and stale. Same as if the character feels too similar to another character. If you can think of several books or movies that are similar to your setup, that's a red flag that idea is past its use-by date and your might want keep thinking.
But if you see what's different about yours, and you can't think of any situations or characters that are like your situations and characters, then odds are you have a fresh idea.
To sum up:
- Look for specific and unique details for your characters and situations: the general goal might be the same as a hundred other books, but the specifies in how that goal is achieved will be unique the them.
- Look for specific motivations that could only apply to your characters in that setting or plot: the reasons for acting will come from that character's life experiences and individual needs. The richer you make the character, the more unique her goals and motivations will be. She won't just be a stereotype or copy of another well-known character.
- Look for ways to make the old fresh again by putting them in new or unique settings: Romeo & Juliet with zombies felt so fresh it took me half the film before I realized it was a Romeo & Juliet remake. The setting changed the common aspects of that age-old goal and made them unique to the characters and the world they lived it.
- Re-think anything that feels old or familiar to you: trust your gut. If something feels like a copy of something else, change it. If you know you're copying something else (because you love it and want something like it since it resonated so strongly with you) then strip away the specific details of the original until you find the core, thematic element, then build it back up with your unique details.
- Look for ways to twist anything that feels old and familiar to you: think outside the box. Don't do the expected if the expected has been done before. Take chances and break molds.
What are your tricks for keeping goals and motivations fresh?