Beth Hautala

Children's Author


Character Motivation || Or, When People Think You're Schizophrenic

During my growing-up and high school years, my two sisters and I were privileged enough to learn some important life skills dictated by the necessity of sharing a single shower-less bathroom. It was super fun. *drips sarcasm*

That said, those ten minutes each of us were rationed every morning, were sacred. My middle sister used her ten for primping. My baby sister used hers as mental prep time for her sports-riddled day. I used mine to talk to my characters. 

I never thought anything of this until one morning I opened the bathroom door to find both of my sisters standing there, wide eyed. We stared at each other for a few silent moments and then they both erupted into hysterical fits of laughter. 

"You should hear yourself!" Said the middle one.

"Who are you talking to!?" Asked the baby one.

I was not amused.

Since then I've done a bit less audible dialogue enactments with my characters, and if I decide to have a conversation, I first check the premises and make sure I'm alone. It's hard to explain to the concerned that you have a vast array of people living in your head. They often prescribe medication and leave quickly.

As a writer, I know that what goes on paper must first live somewhere inside of me, and if it does not, I cannot write it—or at least, I cannot write it well. Story comes alive on the page when it is filled with three dimensional characters who look and behave like real, flawed, and striving people possessing unique motivations, passions, and failures. And though they live only within my mind, they have the potential to live within the hearts and minds of my readers.

But the process of transforming an internal voice into a living, breathing, unique individual who walks around in the pages of my current WIP, takes considerably more work than you might imagine. Good stories must have two driving points—plot and character. Without them, regardless of how nicely the words are arranged, the story will fall flat. And though I rarely use everything I discover, my research and development provides the solid ground upon which my characters will ultimately rise and fall.

But how does one transform the voices into three-dimensional characters?

1) Get to know them on a surface level. Within the confines of the story, try to feel out how the characters might behave. What decisions might they make? What actions might they routinely perform? Pay attention to the outward—the obvious. Does he walk with a limp? Is she continually looking over her shoulder?

2) Once some of the outward is established, move in. Pay attention to feelings and reactions. How would the character respond to circumstances outside of his control? Is he reactionary or was he prepared? How does she show her emotions? With tears or does an expressionless gaze hide what's really going on?

3) Once some of the physical and emotional traits have been nailed down, take a deep breath and get ready for things to get messy. What motivates the character? What does he/she really want? This is the most important question a writer can both ask and answer. It forms the backdrop for all other aspects of the story—even plot lines will be shaped by character motivation. If a writer does not know what her character wants, she is headed for writer's block a mile thick. I know this from personal experience.

Characters want lots of things. To finish the quest and save the world. To get the girl, or conversely, the guy. To win. To conquer. To survive. To love. To be happy, safe, or popular. And while these wants help shape a plot, they are not what a character really wants.

Finish the quest and save the world? —He really wants to know that no mistakes were made when he was fated for the call, and that he is enough.

Get the girl? —He wants to know that he's still got it, that despite his failures, someone finds him worth loving.

Win? Conquer? Survive? —Am I strong enough, brave enough, determined enough?

The answers to underlying, deep-seated character motivations always touch on an aspect of human nature, and not just human action. And as the characters come alive, the writer must ask them difficult questions, linger over their hurts and their victories, study their faults and failures, and must not be afraid to dialogue with them. —Out loud, if necessary.

Ultimately, the characters—those voices in my head that do not let me rest until they've been scrawled across paper, are aspects of myself. No matter what clothes they come garbed in— angel, demon, god, or girl—their motivations often reveal not only who they really are, but also who their author really is. And this, for good or bad, is a rather sobering thing.

So, when the inevitable, incredulous, and amused question arises: "Who are you talking to!?" Join me, would you? —Lift your chin and stand tall. We are doing good work. After all, we might be creating characters destined to alter history, to finish the quest, save the world, get the girl, and live happily ever after! And who wouldn't want to have a conversation with such a person?

Something to ponder this week: How well do you actually know your characters? Take a fresh look, get to know them— study their actions, their reactions, and see if you can't ascertain their motivations.