One of the common challenges I encounter with many workshop writers and coaching clients is how their characters are motivated. This is a problem for me too in my own writing, make no mistake. It isn't good enough to have them do random stuff willy-nilly.
This is one of those things that's easily missed or ignored, yet critical for bringing characters to life.
What makes your characters do what they do?
When developing your primary characters - protagonist, antagonist, and other major characters - spend a few minutes considering these two questions:
1. What does your character want in an abstract way?
This could be something like self-esteem, love, power, justice, world domination... the idea is there's a fundamental motivator that's part of your character's core being, and this is what drives them in their decision-making.
But abstractions only tell us about our character's core... we still need to understand the character's goal and that brings us to the next question:
2. What does your character want in a concrete way?
This is their story goal, and it must be concrete or else the character and the story start faltering like a wonky donkey. For example, your hero's goal may be something concrete like rescuing the princess, or you're winning the big game, or solving the murder, or marrying the town's only doctor. Those are concrete story goals.
Pulling it together
Once you've clarified what your characters' goals are, then use their abstract motivations to guide their behaviour. If your character wants to save the princess (concrete) but he's motivated by power and lust (abstract), the story is a whole lot different than if he was motivated by love and justice.
See, it's super important to know at all times what both motivators are for your characters. Keeping these in mind will remove a lot of the ambiguity from the characters' actions, and will bring a lot more coherence to your plot.
1. There are already too many novels out there… why does the world need more? Specifically, why does the world need YOUR story? And what's up with writing a book anyway? These days, more people are noodling around on TikTok or making other videos than they are writing or reading. If you're thinking of writing a novel, it pays to really look at the fundamental reasons for doing so. "Because it would be cool" may not be enough of a reason.
2. Anyone can write a novel, and many do. There’s nothing special about it once you learn how, other than having the discipline to actually write every day. I talk about this frequently in my workshops and courses. Like, a lot! The greatest skill a writer can have is the discipline to sit down and write every day. That is more important than talent (we can all develop what God has given us) or skill (like any skill, we can learn), or innate creativity (we're all born with this too). But, not everyone has the resilience to actually sit down and write.
As a result, anyone from any walk of life can write a novel. You don't need to go to school to "become" a writer. Just write. I'm all for that, but it also means there's really nothing special about what we do, is there?
3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich. You have a better chance of winning a lottery than you do in making any significant coin from a novel. If self-publishing costs anywhere from a few thousand dollars and up, this can be an expensive hobby. You will never recover your costs in time or money from book sales. So please, if you have dreams of being a famous author, doing the talk shows and signing books all day, remember: the vast majority of novelists never sell more than a couple dozen books. That may be difficult to understand and yes, you may argue that someone must win the lottery and "why not me?", but the hard truth is if you're writing a novel to get rich, you won't.
4. No guarantee of fame either. Other than the chosen darlings, most novelists spend their writing careers in anonymity, working menial jobs to pay their rent, living on Mr. Noodles and hoping to get picked by HBO or Random House and then life will be sunshine and rainbows. Truth #1: you and I won't get rich writing novels. Truth #2: we won't get famous by writing novels either.
5. Writing a novel doesn’t bring immortality. Hemingway may have been right when he said that if you want to be immortal, you need to write a book (or plant a tree or have a kid), but today? Hardly. When anyone can post videos of their butts on TikTok for free, immortality is cheap. Writing a novel is an awfully hard way to do it when your iPhone is sitting right there.
6. Writing novels doesn’t really flatter the ego. Oh maybe for a few weeks once you’ve finished and published it, but then what? You read it again and find all kinds of things you’d like to change and that one crappy rating on Goodreads or Amazon is enough to send you around the bend and become a monk. Not fun. More like self-torture. There's a medical term for that. Why bother when the world seems more interested in the number of likes you get on an Instagram post rather than the number of people who actually read your book.
7. All that time and effort spent in isolation, ...wrestling with word choices and syntax and structure and stealing other writers’s ideas… even introverts can only take so much of that. And for what? So you can sell a few copies of your book to family and friends. And never mind the cost of doing it right. From opportunity cost, to the real costs of getting an editor, a professional cover and layout, coaching and courses and other skill-building activities, and novel writing becomes a very expensive hobby.
Wow, that's pretty doomy and gloomy for me today, isn't it?
And yet... we write!
One really good reason TO write a novel
Yes, we still write. We still want to put in the effort to create a story from a bunch of squiggles on the page. Why? Because fundamentally, your story is one of possibility. If you write fiction, you’re writing about things that could happen, or could have happened. Why is this important? Because it offers hope. When you read a novel, you’re learning how others act and react in situations that you could find yourself one day. Perhaps you’ll learn something about how they deal with conflict and fear. Perhaps that guy marooned on Mars can show us what resourcefulness and resilience is all about, even when we know we’ll never be in that situation.
Hope. Possibility. Sharing your story. Despite all the reasons for not writing a novel, this is why hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year. So now I ask: why not you, too?