Friday, October 25, 2013

Keeping Goals and Motivations Fresh

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.
You could argue that at this point, any love story with two "warring sides" can be thematically linked back to Romeo & Juliet.

(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.
When something feels old or repetitive to you, think about how you can flip it around. I like to look at the opposite if it first, then work from there. (Though to be honest, lots of folks just do the opposite of what's familiar, so this can also lead you down the "been there, done that" road) Try random things to see if any change how a goal or motivation would unfold. Keep crossing off the obvious reasons until you have something unique to that one character.

What are your tricks for keeping goals and motivations fresh?

14 comments:

  1. I find this post interesting and timely because I was just pondering that very issue today. But my pondering was more along the lines of frustration with hearing agents and editors say they want "fresh, new ideas" but meanwhile they seem to only really want the same-oft-told stories they know readers will buy.

    After reading your post, I realize agents and editors don't want new ideas, they want the same-old stories with new 'twists'. As a reader, I find that frustrating because I am SO bored with picking up a story and feeling like I've read it before--even with new twists, to me, it still feels like I've read it-- and that applies in all genres. As a writer, I find it discouraging. I started writing because of the issue above. I was whining to my daughter about not being able to find anything good to read, and she called my bluff.

    We can't change the old guard Big-5 publishers mentality, I guess. All we can do is keep writing. So thanks for giving us ideas on how to twist things into a new shape, and maybe get a better shot at being published. :)

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    1. I think that's true for some agents and editors (some houses aren't taking risks, which leads editors to stick with what they feel will sell well, so agents take on what they know they can sell, etc), but there are still agents and editors out there who want new ideas.

      But "new" is subjective. For us, an idea might seem new, but to someone who sees 25K queries a year it might be old hat. It's hard to pin down exactly what new means. And the flip side, if it's too new or too out there, an agent can have trouble knowing who to sell it to.

      It's definitely frustrating sometimes, though. I feel the same way in certain genres. It all feels like the same books over and over. But I've also noticed that when I do find a great character and voice, I still enjoy the book even when it's part of that "seen it, read it" genre.

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  2. Your post reminded me of this: http://www.buzzfeed.com/hunterschwarz/movies-that-have-the-exact-same-plot-if-you-had-to-describe There is some language in there (S-word), so the short description is that some people juxtaposed movies that can be described with the same tagline. For instance, "A father vows to get his child/children back no matter the cost." Mrs. Doubtfire or Taken?

    For goals and motivations, I make it intrinsic to the character, as well as something relatable. In my current WIP, my hero wants redemption so that he can feel accepted again.

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    1. Great example! There's nothing new out there anymore, just how we serve it up. And that can still feel new. It's not easy, but worth striving for!

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  3. I am pondering this same thing. Are my character's motivations strong enough? How can I make them unique, and what are my supporting characters motivations? Have I fleshed them out enough? Are each unique? Do their goals go against each other at times? Your post helped me think through a bunch. I hadn't thought about Warm Bodies that way, but you are right. It made me laugh when I you pointed it out. Of course it is. Thanks!

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    1. That's what's so great about these classic motivations and themes. You can do anything with them and still be original. And don't forget that "unique to them" is a good question, not just unique. That's a lot of pressure to create truly unique motivations for every character every time.

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  4. I'm plotting and working through character profiles and GMC right now. Thanks for these great tips!

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    1. Most welcome! Have fun with it, and good luck on the plotting.

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  5. A timely post for my characters. :) The love example in particular...my problem is that the main characters aren't really looking for love; lust sort of happens to them and they have many, many reasons to keep their feelings from each other. I'm hoping to do this in a different way and avoid all the angst that usually goes along with it, haha. I'll refer to this post as I go, I guess. :)

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    1. How you structure your character arcs can be helpful there as well. That sounds like you have a perfect need/want situation, where they want something else and think that will make them happy, but they really need love to be happy. (generally speaking) Unconscious goals fighting with conscious goals. Fun stuff!

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  6. Oh great you just told me my wonderful ideas are not original.... ~smirk.

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    1. You're the exception (grin). Your stuff is totally original.

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  7. I'm super late in adding to this conversation, but I just read DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE (finally, I know!) and as soon as I finished, read tons of reviews of it from when it was released to see how it resonated with others. I was surprised to see several reviewers complain that the "star-crossed lovers thing is so overdone" and that the world doesn't need more Romeo & Juliet-based stories.

    On the one hand, I can see where they're coming from. On the other hand, as you say, nothing is new under the sun! And if an author CAN put their own twist on an old story (which I think Laini Taylor did very well), then I guess some readers will love it and some will think it's tired, and there's just no pleasing everyone. But I'll admit I was surprised by the complaints of that nature, because how you twist a story to me is the way it's made unique. As Rachel6 pointed out, if someone said to write a story about a father who would do anything to get his children back, having him cross-dress up as an elderly housekeeper is NOT the first thing I'd have thought of. So... it is possible :)

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    1. Late comments are fine :) That's a perfect example of how varied reader are. If you read a lot of romance, you might be sick of that plot, but for someone who doesn't read a lot, it still feels fresh. It can be very subjective and situational.

      I know there are certain sci fi and fantasy plots I'm a little tired of just because I watch/read so much of it. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with those stories.

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