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Three Ways to Discover Your Character’s True Motivation

Please welcome Jim Dempsey back to Writer Unboxed today, this time as our newest regular contributor! Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and works as a book editor at a company called Novel Gazing. In his own words, Jim tells us that:

I’ve been editing for just over 20 years, and the thing that still fascinates me about literature – or any art – is how it can tell us so much about ourselves and what makes us uniquely human. In that respect, fiction especially has a lot in common with psychology, and I’m always interested in the points where these two meet, and what psychology can teach us about fiction, and what literature can teach us about being human.

You can learn more about Jim and his services on his company website, and by following him on Twitter (@jimdempsey and @novel_gazing).

Three Ways to Discover Your Character’s True Motivation

It might seem obvious to say (or just plain odd), but your characters don’t know they’re part of a story. Except for some metafictional works, your characters think they are real people. They want to behave like real people – and readers want them to behave like real people. That means that the actions they take and the choices they make are all done for a reason. What they do has to make sense to them (and the readers).

Your main character chose to be a hero, at least the hero of this story. Certain circumstances led them to that decision and the position they’re now in. They chose to act in one way rather than continue with how their old life was going. It wasn’t a random decision. It was motivated by events, the past and influences from other characters (who also don’t know they’re in a story).

Your characters – especially protagonists – will make many choices over the course of the novel. They will go this way or that. Knowing what truly motivates your characters can help you decide which direction they, as a real person, will choose and – more importantly – why. This will make your characters even more believable, more human, and the story more engaging.

Readers don’t need to know the precise details of everything that led to this moment in the story except those that are relevant to the narrative. But it is useful if you – the author – knows that backstory and what drove them to this point. These three exercises will help you to discover what truly motivates your characters.

1. The opposite job

Let’s start with something fun. The New York Times had an article recently about opposite jobs. Based on the details of the skills required for certain occupations, determined by the Labor Department, the newspaper developed a tool where you can type in your job and it will tell you the opposite job, the job that requires completely different skills.

The tool lists the skills needed for each job, so you can check to see if you character has what it takes to be in that occupation.

The opposite of a writer, for example, is a mobile home installer. The latter are, apparently, better suited to ‘developing and building teams,’ and ‘scheduling work and activities,’ which I think just means they don’t procrastinate quite as much.

The opposite job of a waitress is a physicist. Physicists don’t have the same ‘ability to reach with arms, hands and legs,’ so will probably propel the burger to your table via a rocket, and that’s too dangerous.

Once you have your character’s opposite job, you can think about why they decided to become an architect, aircraft mechanic or whatever and not a meat packer or locker room attendant.

A useful thought exercise is to work out what decisions they could have taken in their ‘life’ that would have led them to this opposite job. Working out what they could have done, the choices the could have made, will help you see why they decided to go the other way and end up in the position they are in now.

The opposite job of an editor, by the way, is a model. Not because all editors are ugly but because models can’t quite hunch over a desk like we can.

Note: if your character is a wizard, warrior, spy or medieval knight, then you’re out of luck. Apparently, the Labor Department doesn’t have data on those particular skillsets.

2. The eulogy

Another way to bring your character to life is to think about their death.

Imagine your main character has died. It might be suddenly or at the end of a long life, long after the story has ended. Picture their funeral, the people (fictional or real) who would be there and whether it’s a grand ceremony or something simple.

Nobody knows this character better than you, and now you have to give the eulogy at that funeral. What will you say?

It’s a good writing exercise to at least jot down some ideas if not the full eulogy. Would you say something about their family, for example? Which close friends would get a special mention? What did the character achieve in life? Was work the most important thing? Did they have another vocation that drove them to success, however big or small?

You could even describe the whole funeral, and think about who would be crying the most, who would be sitting there bored and who would be missing or peering in from outside.

The result will be a description of this character’s path in life and include the things they valued most. From there you will learn who and what is most important to your character, and that will tell you what drives your character, what motivates their actions and choices.

3. What if…

Many of us will wonder at some point in our lives: what if X had happened, where would I be now? You can ask the same of your characters to get a little deeper into what motivates them.

What if your character suddenly had a million dollars? What if your character had finished college (or not), or married that childhood sweetheart (or not), then how would their life have changed?

The answer will tell you something about what’s important to the character. For example, if you think your character would use the million dollars to pay for their children’s college education, then it’s important for this character to be able to provide for their family. If they used the money to buy a flash car, then this character is concerned about how they are perceived by other people. If a college education would have helped your character start their own business, then freedom is probably important to that character.

Imagine the impossible, if your character could have that one thing, what would then happen? What would be the most important change that character would make in their life?

These exercises will help you see what your character would choose in a certain situation, and their choices will be reflected in their actions. Whenever you get to a point in your story when you’re not sure which way your character would jump, try one or more of these exercises and discover what truly motivates your character.

How do you find out what motivates your character? Is it always clear from the inception of that character, or you do have useful tips to discover what drives the characters in your novel?

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. In 2012, he set up his own book editing company, Novel Gazing, and offers proofreading, copy-editing and developmental editing services. The company works with publishers and self-publishing authors.

Jim has a master’s degree in creative writing, and uses his passion for stories – all kinds of stories, fiction and nonfiction – to coach authors, helping them to develop their writing skills.

When Jim isn’t editing, he’s still reading, and reviewing books for Bookmunch.

Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.