Friday, December 14, 2018

Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For a strong plot, it really does come down to asking two simple (yet not so simple) questions. 

The sheer number of plotting questions I get both here and in person is a good indicator that plotting is something a lot of writers struggle with. It's not a craft issue really, because you can write some beautiful prose and still have trouble creating a good plot.

I've had many a brainstorming session with many a stuck or struggling writer, and over the years I've noticed a few questions keep coming up.

What does the protagonist hope to gain?

Why is the protagonist doing it?

Basically, what's the character's goal and what's the motivation for trying to achieve that goal.

More times than not I get blank stares when I ask these questions. Then the writer answers with a general reason, such as, the character has to stop at the store because that's where he gets kidnapped. But this isn't why the character is stopping at the store, it's just what has to happen for the plot to work.

I keep pushing until the writer can tell me what and why, or until they smack me in the head (just kidding, though a lot of them probably want to).

To create a good plot, characters need to want things for plausible reasons. If all they're doing is acting out the steps from inciting event to climax, there's a good chance the novel will feel meh. Lifeless, soulless, not very compelling even if the plot itself is technically a solid plot.

(More on making readers care here)

Pick a scene from your current novel and ask:

1. What does the protagonist hope to gain? What's the goal?

Even if the protagonist is tied to a chair, dangling helplessly over a pit of poisonous snakes, she'll have a goal. Not being able to act is different from not wanting to act. "Escape a horrible death" is a goal, because the protagonist hopes to gain her life. "Talk the killer into letting me go" is also a goal because the protagonist hopes to gain her freedom.

Even not acting can be a goal in the right circumstances. "Stay quiet so the killer doesn't hear me" is a goal, because the hope is to escape detection and not get caught.

However, "Not wanting to die" is not a goal, because that basically describes the normal state of human existence. It might be what's motivating the protagonist to act, but in and of itself, it's not something to be gained--and it doesn't hold a reader's attention for very long.

This is what trips up a lot of struggling writers. They confuse the protagonist's motivations with the goal, so there's nothing for the protagonist to do to move the plot forward. On the surface, it looks like there's a goal, but it's not actually helping the scene.

(More on creating character goals here)

2. Why is the protagonist doing it? What's the motivation?

The protagonist is going to have a reason for doing whatever she's doing or wanting whatever she hopes to gain. Sometimes that reason is obvious--such as, she doesn't want to die--but most times it's more subtle. Maybe the protagonist wants her crush to notice her, so she wears a skimpy outfit to a party, or another protagonist might stay late at the office because he wants a promotion so he's able to take his kids to Disney World and prove to his ex-wife he's not a dead-beat and a bad father.

Let's take a closer look at those examples, though.

Say you've written a scene about a man working late to get a promotion. This is critical to the plot, because he has to be at the office late at night to witness a crime and get sucked into it, eventually stopping the crime and saving the day. On the surface this scene should work, right? His goal is clear--he wants to get a promotion, and he'll act in ways to achieve that goal, which puts him directly in the path of the trouble and move the plot forward.

Now ask why he wants that promotion. What's his motivation?

Um, because he wants more money?

Not a terrible motivation, but it's a little impersonal and generic. It also sets him up as a greedy dude who might be bought off by the criminals. If so, then anything he does to stop them will feel contrived. Why would this guy stick his neck out? Why not just hide under the desk until the criminals leave?

How about...he wants to take his kids to Disney World.

Better, as it's personal and specific, but is this really going to motivate him to do what the plot needs him to do? Yes, it puts him in the right place at the right time, but nothing more. So again, it risks feeling weak. The motivation for being there is only about working late, not anything remotely related to the actual plot of the novel.

Now let's look at the last part of the example: to prove to his ex-wife he's not a dead-beat dad and a bad father.

Now we have a guy with something to prove. This motivates him to work late, and take a risk with the criminals, because it's an opportunity to do more than his original goal. What if he stops these men? Saves the day? He'll be a hero to his kids, his company, maybe even get some approval from his ex-wife. He can accomplish the immediate goal (get the promotion) and the larger goal (prove he's a good dad) all in one fell swoop.

These are also goals and motivations readers can relate to and even empathize with. They'll care because he's risking a lot for solid, understandable reasons.

(More tips on developing motivations here)

If you're struggling with a scene or even an entire novel, and you feel like it ought to work, try asking what the character has to gain and why the character is trying to gain it. And don't stop with superficial answers, dig deep and find answers that apply to both the individual scene goal and the larger character arc goal. The more motivated your characters are, the better the story will be.

What's motivating your characters? Do they have something to gain or are they just acting out plot? 

Find out more about conflict and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Hi Janice
    Great post and the example is superb.
    For me, this is one of the advantages of pantsing. Once you establish your character's goal and motivation, the plot is constructed as a result of their trying to achieve it. This occurs naturally as you spend time with the character writing the story. Whereas, if the plot comes first, you then spend the time shoe-horning the character into it, finding those 'meh' moments you talked about.
    Of course, planning using the protagonist as your jumping off point, is probably even more effective, and saves time in the edit, but I'm not there quite yet :)

    1. Thanks! I think it depends on the writer, honestly. We all have a different process and trying to force ourselves to do what doesn't come natural usually results in a mess (or an unhappy writer).

      I've heard from quite a few pantsers that many outline techniques are quite handy during revisions after they've done the pantsing part.

  2. Hi Janice, another great post and timely too. My CPs just asked what's motivating my MC. I guess I haven't made those motivations clear (or maybe they're not convincing enough motivations). Back to work!

    1. It's fairly common for motivations to not be clear in the text, so if you feel the motivations are solid, that's probably the issue. A few words here and there to clarify often fix that.

  3. John Cleese of Monty Python said that any person in any sketch they did was there for a reason. Great points, not that anyone has to have a huge reason for being somewhere but a solid one none the less...

    1. It's not a bad philosophy to use for novels, actually. If something is in the novel give a reason for it. That helps with description as well as characters or goals.

  4. Excellent post! I've been struggling with one of my characters, and now I think I've got it - he bores me because nothing is really motivating him. So now I have to have a conversation with him (yes, I do that) and find out what he's hoping to accomplish by the end of the book. :-)

    1. Conversations with characters is a good way to get to know them, no worries there. Glad this helped! Hope you find his motivation during your heart-to-heart.

  5. This is such great advice. I have to make "goal lists" when I'm plotting, because I struggle with this.

    1. I love lists of all types when writing. It's handy to have reference points and reminders so you can stay on track or double check something if you feel lost. You can also try asking at the start of every scene, "What does the POV want to accomplish here?"

  6. I used to think I was asking and answering these questions right...but my plots tended to be boring. They're great questions, but I needed to ask them in a different way. Now I ask them for my villains -- what does the antagonist want to achieve? What are their motivations? That leads naturally for me to why the protagonists want to stop them. So...I guess I ask what the protagonists DON'T want to happen. And why. And what they'd be willing to do to stop it. Thanks for this post! :)

    1. I have a crit partner who always plots out what her antagonist does. It's a great way to figure out what to throw at your protagonist, especially if the plot is more focused on stopping or avoid the bad guy.

      You might also try thinking about the stakes if things feel boring. Often even when you have a solid goal and motivation, if there's nothing at stake for the character, the reader doesn't care.

    2. Good idea. I am working through a more "boring" part right now, actually. Thanks!

  7. AGH. This is one of those posts that...I don't know how to describe this reaction...I want to do this. I think I can achieve the immediate and longterm goals. I just don't know if it'll translate from head to paper.

    Hey, you don't know till you try :)

    1. It can be tough, and you're not alone there. Lots of writers have the same struggle getting what's in their head onto the page.

      I think what happens there, is that you have a sense of what the character feels and wants, but it's more gut instinct than clear and articulated goals. So it feels like they have what they need, but you can't actually spell it out.

      If this sounds like you, yo u might try just writing down what you feel and think for that character. Do it on a separate piece of paper and just free write and take notes until you can articulate what they want and why they want it. Once you can so that, it should be easier to get that to show in your scenes.

  8. Great post Janice! I really do love the examples you give. They help tremendously. I think I'm going to go back and ask my MC what she feels she has to prove and to whom she feels she has to prove it to. Hoping that will help answer some questions as well as have her be more proactive and less reactive.

    1. Thanks! I have way too much fun with those. Good luck on your questions! Hope your MC gives you some good answers.

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