Friday, September 8, 2017

Writing Exercise #13: Why Do Characters Do What they Do?

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Writing exercises are back, you guys! And I've got a good one today. It's inspired by the edit I'm currently working on, so let me fill you in. Without, of course, giving away the guts of my story.

So! I have this manuscript, right? A book that I have "completed" a million times now. I was excited about it, proud, convinced it was ready to go out hunting for a publishing house. And then! THEN. My agent had this idea. Maybe we tweak this one thing. Doesn't sound like such a big deal right? Just, you know, a thing.

Well! Tweaking this one thing meant revisiting the motivations for nearly all of my main characters. And when you have a completed manuscript, a manuscript you love and genuinely believe in, it is a difficult thing to revisit the reasons behind each action.

Because my manuscript is so far along, I also have a framework I need to edit within. Meaning, my list of possible motivations must be limited to what these specific characters reasonably will and won't do within the structure of the current story.

So! Here's what I had to do. 

I had to list possible motivations for each action I was adjusting and then consider how it affected the other characters. Once I'd thought through the possibilities, I narrowed the list down to my best, most suitable options and worked from there.

So, let's talk about it. What kinds of things influence a character's actions? Here are some of the motivations I considered:


We do a ton of things out of habit. We don't think about the why anymore, we just do it a certain way because we've always done it that way. Habits can be very telling.


I know you identify with this! How often to we decide to walk down a specific hallway at school because we're avoiding someone who hangs out on our regular route? On a larger scale, some people live their lives a certain way simply to avoid something they consider unpleasant. Lots of possibilities here.


Football season is starting and if you listen to any press conference this weekend, you'll hear coaches and players alike talk about the daily grind with the end goal being that Lombardi Trophy given to the season's Super Bowl Champs. That's why they play. Most of us have some sort of achievement in mind. Could it be a reward of some sort that has your character doing the things he does? What if it isn't a reward so much as an achievement? A life goal? A new goal spurred on by the situation your character finds herself in?

Empathy / Sympathy 

Perhaps your character has been through a situation that allows him or her to empathize with another character's plight. Or perhaps your character simply feels the burden of another soul and wants to help. If you're careful to dig deeply here, empathy and sympathy can act as powerful motivators.


Does your character believe something that isn't true? Perhaps your character believes a lie. Many of us have acted on false information to detrimental consequences. Maybe this lie and your character's actions in light of it, is the impetus for growth? Our beliefs, real and perceived, touch everything we do.

NOW it's YOUR TURN. I'm going to give you an action and I want you to come up with five possible motivations for it. Keep it simple. We don't need a story here. Just a simple list. 

In the comments section, give me five motivations for
this action:

Bess walks her neighbor's pet unicorn every morning.

Remember! When you participate in our writing exercises you can enter to win an opportunity to ask Jill, Steph and me a question for one of our upcoming writing panels. Once you leave your response to the writing prompt in the comments section, use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Next week, Rafflecopter will select one winner and we'll contact you for your question via email. Happy writing, friends!

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  1. 1. The neighbor pays her to walk the unicorn, and she needs the money for college.
    2. The unicorn is pledged to maul her family, and the only way to avoid this is if Bess walks it every day.
    3. Bess's neighbor is elderly and disabled and his hoverchair won't take him outside or else it breaks. She feels bad for him and volunteers to walk the unicorn, which will otherwise go crazy in the house all day.
    4. Bess is trying to set a record-100 days in a row of walking the elusive male unicorn. That is, if she can avoid getting her arms ripped off...
    5. Bess believes that the unicorn will lead her to the mystical Fountain of youth.

    Can't wait to see what the rest of you come up with!

    1. Fantastic! I love these! And I love that each of them is motivated by a different internal need.

    2. Nice job, Faith! I love these! <3

  2. 1. Bess hung around the unicorn's pen for long enough that her neighbor asked her to, just like Bess had hoped. Now she can spend time with a real, live unicorn every day!
    2. Bess wants to become a magizoologist or a vet that specializes in special creatures, and this is good training.
    3. It's part of her therapy work - she's required to spend time with an animal every day, and her mom noticed that old Mr. Jorkins happens to own a unicorn.
    4. Her neighbor is like her uncle to her, and Bess knows how hard it is for him to walk the unicorn by himself. She walks the unicorn, and then they sit at the kitchen table with apple cider and talk about her day.
    5. She wants to - needs to - get out of the house, because she cannot stand the yelling and fighting from her siblings and parents.

    This was surprisingly fun! My mind is still going on overdrive, coming up with a lot more possibilities!

    1. These were great! I know, there's so many possibilities!!

    2. Yay! That's what we want! An active mind. Good job on these!

  3. 1. Bess's life is filled with fear and pain. The unicorn gives her something magical to believe in.

    2. Bess owns a unicorn walking service and her neighbor's hired her for their unicorn.

    3. Lady Bess is of royal blood and only royal blood have been able to tame such a magical, majestic being. Her neighbors own a unicorn stable and only Lady Bess has calmed the wild beasts.

    4. Bess is timid and a unicorn is wild, so her parents asked the neighbors if Bess could walk the unicorn every morning before school so she could learn how to be brave.

    5. The unicorn, Pinky Doodle, is a commander of a rebellion. His owners are not part of the rebellion as they pledge allegiance to the corrupt and overpowering government. Bess is a military strategist in the rebellion, one of the best. Pinky Doodle and Bess go on walks to discuss their plans in secret. As time draws closer and a war is imminent, Pinky Doodle knows he will have to leave his "owners." Though they fight for the government, Pinky Doodle likes his owners because they gave him creme doughnuts.

    Yeah, that last one was strange, even for me. XD

    I love these writing exercises and I'm glad they're back. I've missed them. <3


    1. I love the ones that you came up with! Especially that last one - brilliant!

    2. Thank you! That last one was weird, even for me, lol. :D

    3. I adore these! I feel like you could write an entire book based on #'s 4 and 5.

    4. These are so funny!


    5. #5 is awesome, Ivie!!!!

    6. I love these! Please write a book about #5!

  4. 1. The neighbour asked her to do it while he was gone for a week, but he never came back, so it's a habit by now.
    2. She's the only one (besides the neighbour) who can see the unicorn, and, well, hiring someone to walk an animal they can't see isn't going to go that well.
    3. It's an ornery old beast and nobody else seems to get along with it, but the fact remains that it needs to get outside.
    4. It isn't really a unicorn, but an enchanted human, whose owner is keeping it locked up, and she's hoping that by getting permission to take it on walks, someday they'll be able to run away together and get it unenchanted.
    5. It's a society where people usually have magical pets, but unicorns are considered girly (especially as opposed to, say, griffins), and though the unicorn was a birthday present for her neighbour, he's been neglecting it, so she takes care of it.

    1. Hahahahahaha! Love these. #5 is awesome.

    2. I LOVE #4!!!!! That'd make an awesome short story. XD

  5. 1. Bess wants to steal the unicorn, and is earning her neighbor's trust first by walking it every morning so that the neighbor won't suspect her.
    2. The neighbor is out of town and hired Bess to walk and watch the unicorn.
    3. Bess is afraid of unicorns and her parents told her that the best way to overcome a fear is to face it: thus, she asked the neighbor if she could walk his unicorn every morning and he let her.
    4. Bess believes the unicorn is magical and that by walking it every morning she can pick up on some sort of magical luck. The neighbor thinks it's an average unicorn and a pain to take care of, so he let her walk it.
    5. Bess wants to study unicorns and her neighbor kindly allowed her to study his.

  6. 1. Bess's mother loved unicorns, and she passed away the year before, so walking the unicorn reminds Bess of her mother.
    2. Bess's stepmother (her father remarried after her mother died) works Bess too hard, and walking the unicorn is a way to get out of the house.
    3. Bess's stepmother hates animals, so that fact that her daughter comes in smelling like a horse bugs her, which give Bess a little bit of wicked joy.
    4. The unicorn is a portal-walker and can step between the worlds, so Bess wants to be the only one who walks him so that no one else finds out his secret.
    5. The neighbor pays Bess, and she's trying to raise money to help her brother be able to stay in school.

    So glad that you're starting writing exercises up again, Shannon! These are always fun :D.

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

    1. I love these! The third one made me laugh out loud when I red it.

    2. I'm glad, too! The third and fourth ones are awesome, by the way!

  7. 1 Bess is terrified of the pineapple-flavoured toenail wombats, and believes unicorns ward them off.

    2 Bess and the unicorn are alien spies. The unicorn’s horn transmits information back to their home planet.

    3 Bess hates a platypus at her tiddlywinks stunt class. Walking the unicorn means she has a valid excuse for being late and avoiding her.

    4 Bess’s poor friend can’t afford all the unicorn chest hair he needs to pass food technology. Bess steals some for him every morning.

    5 Who *wouldn’t* want to walk a unicorn?

  8. 1. When she was younger, Bess's family had a pet unicorn too, so she knows how difficult they can be to manage, especially when they don't get enough exercise. Since her neighbor is elderly and often ill, Bess decides to help her by giving her unicorn exercise.

    2. The guy Bess has a crush on is a unicorn trainer, and he lives in her same neighborhood! She walks the unicorn past his house every morning, hoping he might catch a glimpse of her skill with her neighbor's unicorn.

    3. Bess's older brother thinks she's incompetent and cowardly, so he dared her to take their neighbor's unicorn for a walk (walking unicorns is no easy feat). Determined to prove herself, she musters up the courage to do it, and makes herself do it every day, no less--she is not a coward!

    4. They say that being around unicorns has a positive influence on a person's mental and physical health. Bess has always had poor health, so she hopes spending time with a unicorn on a daily basis might help her get better.

    5. Her neighbor helped Bess get her dream job, so she offers to walk the unicorn in return, to thank her neighbor for the huge favor.

  9. 1. Her neighbor has arthritis and has difficulty moving around. Bess walks her pet unicorn as a favor.

    2. Her neighbor pays her very well, as finding someone to walk a pet unicorn is difficult. And Bess needs the money for college.

    3. Legend says that the person who befriends a unicorn will get one wish. Bess hopes to befriend her neighbor's unicorn so she can get the one wish.

    4. Everyone on Bess's street is terrified of the unicorn. Even her neighbor is slightly petrified by it. Bess is the only one brave enough to walk it every morning.

    5. Unicorn hair is said to possess magical powers. Bess walks her neighbor's pet unicorn every morning in order for it to eventually grow to trust her, and then she can take some of its hair.

  10. 1. Bess has always wanted a unicorn, but she can't because her mother is allergic. So this gives her an excuse to be with one.

    2. Bess needs money and is getting paid to walk the unicorn.

    3. Bess's neighbor, Bob, broke his leg, so Bess decided to walk Bob’s unicorn for him.

    4. Bess hates unicorns, so her mom made her walk the unicorn as punishment for… not doing dishes. XD

    5. Unicorns have healing powers, so Bess wants to hang around one so her broken arm will be healed.

  11. 1. Bess will get paid a very big amount, daily because the unicorn needs exercise. She gets paid so much because the unicorn's aura doesn't mingle with the human aura. The unicorn hates the feeling and tries to kill her. Basically, Bess gets paid to give the unicorn exercise and not die.

    2.Bess walks with the unicorn everyday so she can try to convince the blackmailing fiend to not tell her secrets. (???)

    3. The unicorn is actually her boyfriend who was turned into a unicorn when he ate a magical cupcake. (I'm going all the way with this one.) She offered to walk him so that they could spend time together.

    4. She heard that their manes are softer than silk and wanted to see if it was true.

    5.She's lonely and wants a friend.

    1. AWW I LOVE THE THIRD ONE, SIS! (that would make a great story)

    2. Thanks! <3
      It could be called: "The Times I Walked My Boyfriend". xD

    3. YW!
      LOLLLLLL. (if you DID make it a story - *begs* - you should change the magical cupcake to a magical........................................... apple. Yep, an apple.

    4. You know I can't write fantasy. It'd turn out horrid! There are so many fairytales with a poisoned apple. A poisoned cupcake would be leave your readers speechless. Something so good being turned to something so deadly....

    5. There's never a better time to try than the present! Besides, it wouldn't be THAT bad.
      If it DID turn out bad (and there's only a small chance of that), you could always say it was a comedy. LOL
      PLEASE, my DEAR sister! It could be a very early Christmas present.... ;D

    6. (P.s. There are NEVER enough poisoned apple stories. lol)

    7. If you try fantasy, I'll try a boring nonfiction..... *waves offer in front of your face*

    8. Yeah, but disaster should never happen if you know it is to come.
      I'm glad you believe in me, but...I don't. Fantasy isn't my forte.
      I'll think about it, but only for you. <3

    9. Mrs. Dittemore: Sorry, that other comment was for my sister. lol
      I'm glad you liked it! I thought magical cupcakes and unicorns were perfect for each other. lol

    10. @LHE - You don't know for sure that it WILL be a disaster..... PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ!!!!

  12. 1. She's always wished she had a unicorn of her own, so she jumps at the chance to spend time with one.
    2. It gets her out of the house while her brother is practicing the trumpet.
    3. She really wants the money.
    4. She's secretly saving the unicorn droppings she picks up along the way in order to fuel her secret doomsday device.
    5. She wants the money so she can buy her own unicorn and use its droppings to fuel her doomsday device, which will destroy all trumpets so her brother can never practice his again.

    1. Very creative! The last two were the best. lol
      God Bless. :)

    2. #2 and #4 are the best! LOL

    3. This is fantastic! Love the progression.

  13. 1) Bess is an extremely cheerful and bubbly person, while the unicorn is constantly gloomy and pessimistic. The unidocter prescribed the unicorn to the treatment of taking walks every morning with an extremely cheerful and bubbly girl named Bess, and Bess just happens to live next door.

    2) Bess and her neighbor are trying to start an ice cream shop, and Bess is walking the unicorn around as a living advertisement while her neighbor takes classes on how to make ice cream without ice (both Bess's and her neighbor's freezers are broken).

    3) Bess is a good fairy trying to save the unicorn from eternal enslavement.

    4) Bess is a bad fairy trying to condemn the unicorn to eternal enslavement.

    5) Bess is planning to enter into training to be a dragon slayer and, obviously, she can't be a dragon slayer without riding gloriously into battle on a unicorn. She and the unicorn are working together to teach Bess to ride, and also to decide exactly how she is going to be trained to be a dragon slayer as all the dragon slayers in town are honey bees (dragons are mortally afraid of honey bees) and she can't very well learn from a honey bee.


  14. lol Number five was the best! <3

  15. 1. The unicorn wants a best friend and has picked Bess. Everyone knows that you don't say no to a unicorn, so she's stuck with it.
    2. She needs money to self-publish her novel (which is TOTALLY going to be the next bestseller) so she's doing everything she can to get it.
    3. If you spend enough time with a unicorn - estimates vary, but usually range from 200 to 300 hours - you can gently unscrew their horn. Unicorn horns sell for several million dollars in mint condition. Bess read this in a little known book and is trying to cash in.
    4. Bess is obsessive-compulsive and needs to pet a unicorn eighteen times every twenty-four hours.
    5. Bess is a unicorn in human disguise. The unicorn next door is Bess's boyfriend, and this is the only quality time they get.

    1. Wow, I just noticed one of my answers was really similar to someone else's. Maybe I should read the other ideas before I answer next time . . .

  16. 1.She has always wanted a pet unicorn, but her family can't afford one. By walking the unicorn, she gets to spend time with one of her favorite things and make money for her family.
    2. Having a unicorn is a status symbol. Bess walks the unicorn past the house of one of the popular kids at school, hoping it will get noticed by them.
    3. Bess has depression. The doctor has prescribed spending time with a unicorn because they bring happiness. This unicorn also has depression, so they help each other through it.
    4. The unicorn's owners are abusive. Bess can't stand to see any living thing in danger and so she volunteers to take care of the unicorn whenever possible. She sneaks it little treats and walks it to the vet one day when the owners don't care enough to make a check-up appointment.
    5. Bess's family is really encouraging her to get a job, and the kindhearted neighbor suggests that Bess walk his unicorn. Bess is one of the few people who can understand unicorns (the unicorn's owner cannot) and only she knows how mean the unicorn really is. They hate each other, but Bess's family and the neighbor are forcing them to spend time together.

    I love this prompt so much, and enjoyed reading everyone else's responses. You should do more of these!

    1. These are awesome! And I'm so glad you're enjoying the exercises! There are definitely more on the way.