Monday, August 17, 2015

How to Motivate a Character In Ways Your Reader Will Relate To

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

By the time I close out chapter three, I've usually pushed my character into making the choice to go on the journey she needs to be on. James Scott Bell describes this moment as a "doorway of no return," and I think that's a very helpful way to process this moment in the story: My character is choosing to walk through a door that will forever close behind her.

Does she have to choose it? Not necessarily, but I really like what it does to the complexity of a character when they make the choice instead me of forcing them to travel this path. Suzanne Collins could have had Katniss's name drawn in the reaping rather than Prim's and the result would have been the same. But isn't the story so much more interesting because Katniss volunteers in the place of her sister? 

Sometimes the character is choosing to go on a physical journey, like Bilbo in The Hobbit or Rapunzel in Tangled. But it doesn't have to be a literal journey. In The Scorpio Races, Puck chooses to ride her own regular horse in the races rather than a water horse. She's not physically going anywhere, but rather is making a choice about her life that she can't undo.

The character's hard decision has to make sense to the reader, though. Otherwise it just seems like they're foolish. Or like the author is just pulling strings to tell the story they want to tell. (While of course we do pull strings, we don't want our readers to be able to see them, right?)

I think the easiest way to process how to motivate a character onto a difficult path is to think about my own life. I've made hard choices before, and I'm guessing you have to. When you've picked something hard, why did you choose it?


I came up with a handful of reasons that apply to us as well as characters:

1. The choice is best for someone who I value more than whatever I think the journey might cost me personally.

I hate math, and I've always found nutrition to be super boring. And yet a lot of my daily time and energy is spent weighing out the exact amount of fats, carbs, and proteins in my five-year-old son's meals and snacks. Connor is on a strict medical diet, and if he has too many calories from carbs or protein, he could start having seizures again. I love my son much more than I hate math and nutrition, so I've chosen the path of the ketogenic diet.

We see this in The Hunger Games too. Katniss's love for her sister outweighs her fear of dying in the Games.

2. All the other choices are taken away.

I've been watching It's A Wonderful Life every Christmas for as long as I can remember. Something that makes the story heartwrenching is that George Bailey never leaves Bedford Falls despite having had a bad case of wanderlust since he was a boy. It's a choice he makes over and over during the story, to pass up opportunities for college and world travel, and sometimes he makes the choice to stay because the options to go get taken away from him.

I think this motivation works best when combined with something else on this list, but it can be a good way to back your character into a corner.

3. The potential pay-off is worth the risk.

In The Scorpio Races, Puck knows the races are dangerous. She chooses them because it keeps her
brother at home longer, and she has precious little family. Also, they are badly in need of money.

4. If I fail, I think I can turn around and come back.

Ever had one of those times where you think, "Worst case scenario, this won't work, and I'll just stop."

This can be an effective way to encourage a character through a door. I just read an amazing contemporary YA novel, To Get To You, where the main character chooses to leave home in order to help out his best friend, who is stranded a day's drive away. When he chooses this, he doesn't realize he won't simply be able to bail on the impromptu road trip if things go poorly. 

5. If I don't do it, something big, bad, and scary is sure to happen.

This one plays out in a lot of stories and tends to be directly tied to the "stakes" of the story. If Anna doesn't get to Elsa, it'll always be winter. If Frodo doesn't return the ring, evil will overrun everything. If Veronica Mars doesn't figure out who killed Logan's ex-girlfriend, the killer will still be on the loose and Logan will go to jail for a crime he didn't commit. 

6. Morally, it's the right thing to do.

This one is often combined with other things on this list. I mentioned the Veronica Mars movie in the example above. In Veronica Mars, Veronica doesn't want to go back to her old life of working as a P.I. She wants the new life she's spent years building. But she also can't live with the idea that her choice might result in her old friend, Logan, being sent to jail for a crime he didn't commit. She feels that choosing to return to her hometown is the morally right thing to do.

When you've figured out the reason (or reasons) behind your character's difficult choice, your next job is to make sure you've SHOWN the audience that this thing is important to them.

If we've never seen that Katniss loves Prim, then it'll seem odd for Katniss to volunteer. Or if we didn't know that Rapunzel has been watching the floating lights all these years, the risk she takes to leave the tower wouldn't make sense to us. So be sure to pick a moment or two in the early chapters of your story to show whatever it is you intend to use as a motivator for your character.

I'd love to hear what hard choice your character makes that sends them on their journey. Why do they pick it? And whereprior to them making this choicedo you show their motivation?

29 comments:

  1. In the first draft of my story (which I've almost finished!) my MC, Dorlin, is ambushed by a rival back from the dead, Servus Strife. Dorlin realizes that with his blood, Servus is mortal once more, and will exact revenge on the Emperor. So he decides to investigate. Soon he realizes that it is the Emperor that is the evil one, and in an attempt to escape ends up being sent back in time.

    In later drafts I'm going to change all that (especially the time travel bit) and I'll try to give my character a hard choice, because the story really forces him into his path and it's boring. I've to change a lot other things too. Anyway, I had a bit of a rant there. Thanks for the post!

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  2. In the completed first draft of Draped in Deception, Lissaer is sent on her mission in an attempt to prove herself to her people. In her society, she is considered weak and not a 'real' woman.She believes her mission will make her family and peers accept her. I don't currently have this shown very much in the beginning, but it will definitely be added in edits!

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    1. This is something I often have to finesse in edits as well.

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  3. In Illusion, Kate wants justice to prevail more than anything. She also treasures a normal, uneventful life, so when she's faced with the opportunity to go on the journey, Kate is pulled between keeping a normal life and pursuing justice. She chooses justice.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

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  4. amazing post as always :) thank you! This is exactly what I need right now. I finished my very very very very very very very very rough first draft yesterday (hey, still an achievement ;) ) and need to rewrite the beginning, because my MC is forced into his journey and it just doesn't work correctly. I might just have to play around a bit with these ideas to find out what works better and how I can combine them with what I already have. Would trying to proove someone wrong work as a motivation? I have a feeling it's not strong enough...

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    1. I would think trying to prove someone wrong would be strong enough if you gave them a very very very very good reason to want to prove them wrong. Like, just "oh he ticks me off" would not be good, but a really strong like "he made them believe was wrong and indirectly caused my family's death" might be good. See what I mean?

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    2. That's a huge achievement! Congratulations! And I agree with what Tiffanie said. It can work if you make the situation strong enough.

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  5. In my book, Dawns Rise, my main character's goal is to find her way back to her mom. But no one on this new world will help her, unless she goes on a quest to fulfill a prophecy. I didn't really highlight the fact that she wanted to get back to her mom, and that's why she was doing all of this, though. But I'm on my second draft now, and fixing that.
    Great post! Thanks!

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    1. Sounds like you're on the right track, Emma!

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  6. My characters accept the task of searching for the Silver Leaf, which can cure the Sickness, the fatal disease that is killing the magical land they have been brought to. They accept it after seeing the pain the Sickness can cause; they are sent to stay with a young couple (the husband being their riding instructor at their summer camp, which they find out was really created to prepare them for their coming journey) and learn that their young nephew has died from the Sickness. Soon after the couple's own little boy gets the disease, and that's when the main characters decide to search for the cure.
    I'm working on making sure their motivation and decision to accept such a potentially life-changing task seem believable. Such are the struggles of writing about people from the real world going to a magical world, when there are no real-life examples of this scenario to draw from. ;)

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    1. Sounds like you have great stakes, though! Nice work!

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  7. My main character, Areli, is asked by El Roi (who is this world's God) to go an a dangerous quest carrying a heavy burden, to free the several hundred captured “Faithful.” He is given a clear choice. He must decide between suffering the long, hard journey, or leaving the Faithful imprisoned and keep is somewhat peaceful life. He is motivated to go by a few different reasons. (1) He does not want to fail El Roi. He feels that he is a failure and has failed his father and his family in the beginning of the book. (2) He rescues a boy and his mother, who are some of the Faithful and they are staying with him, but the boy's father was captured. Because he lost his own father when he was young, Areli wants to save this boy's father so the boy won't have to grow up without a father.

    I hope that wasn't too confusing. What do you think?

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  8. I'm still working this out for Transform, but the thing I'm most likely to go with: My characters have to stop the out-of-control elemental who's wreaking havoc on the world (and we aren't talking havoc as in going around killing random people; more along the lines of giant monsters, earthquakes, basically any possible magical disaster) before he ends up destroying everything. (April's trying to rescue her parents, too, but since I have a way to keep them out of the way indefinitely without killing them off or having them captured, she may not succeed until the final book of the trilogy.) Great post! This was exactly what I needed!

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  9. Hmm ... In my WIP, Delitescent, my MC can join up with a group meant to save the world, or stick to her comfortable life and continue to lose her memory every month. The choice to go seems easy till she sees the mugshots of the three other group members, and two of them have blood on their hands.

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    1. I really like the name of your MC, it's very unique! ~Savannah P.

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    2. Oops, I meant to write title, not MC. My mistake :). ~Savannah

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    3. Lol!:) Thanks!

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  10. In my late-stages WIP, I have a character Perl who chooses to protect her cousin's reputation (by pretending to be her during an illness). At first it goes all right, but things get complicated fast.

    I have another WIP in the early stages (just a rough first draft done) and I know I need to work on this for him. I know that the character needs to choose to stay when he has a chance to run, but the reason he does it still doesn't have enough logic/tension to hook readers.

    Thanks for this post! Definitely something to think more about.

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  11. In my story, my main character is going on a journey to find his brother who is missing. It's a hard choice for my main character because he's putting himself in danger, even though he is a careful kid who likes having things planned out and making sure everything is safe. So he has to choose between going to rescue his brother or staying where he is and letting other people handle it. He chooses to go because his brother's safety is more important to him than his fear of what could happen to himself. I hope that made sense. This post was very helpful! -Miriam

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  12. Ironically I've been having a rough time with this lately, and this post could not have come at a better time!
    My MC has a really weird situation set in front of her: her dying best friend wants MC to get her first kiss before she passes. I found it hard for a good enough reason for MC to go along with this crazy plan, which involves going WAY out of her comfort zone.
    Eventually, I came up with the combined fact that MC loves her best friend enough to do this stupid thing with her and the fact that her friend, a soft-spoken but action-driven person wants her to stop being such a loud-mouthed lazy person and do the things that she won't be able to do, including this. Thanks so much for this post, which will hopefully help me expand on this with a little more thought!

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  13. In my story, a teenage boy has been blessed (or cursed) with a power that consumes him little by little every time he uses it. After being betrayed by his uncle, he is locked up in a mine with many other prisoners where their time to live is running short. He has to choose whether he's going to do nothing (the end result being that they all die) or whether he's going to use his power to free them...and be consumed by his power in the process.

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  14. For my story Snake Eyes, my MC is forced to make the choice that is most practical for her survival; when she is given once vaccine for both her sister and her, she must choose herself because if she get sick, her sister will die anyway. At the same time, she desperately wants to have a chance to regain the future that should've been hers in the first place.

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    1. Why would the sister die anyway?

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    2. Her sister is probably doesn't have the survival skills the MC has. Since the MC has control over the meds, I'm guessing her sister is younger, or in some kind of medical condition.

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  15. Love this post, very interesting! I hadn't really thought about that. I really like the point you make about the character choosing rather than thrusting them into a choice. I think that really helps give the character dimension.

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  16. In my current WIP, Stolen Time, Atarah's choice doesn't seem like a big one. She chooses to take her brother's hand, to trust him again... and that leads to greater trouble.

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