"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, September 01, 2008

So what is Motivation?

The question came up in our critique group.
What is motivation?

Is it enough for a character to want things to return to normal? Is that a strong enough motivation for a novel? Or just to survive?
What are your thoughts?
And what about changing motivation? New motivations are introduced at different points throughout the novel. After the call to action, a new motivation may come along. After passing through a doorway of no return there will be a new driving force for the main character. So should the motivation be known from the very start?

This discussion came up because in our group this week, we're doing our exercise - Novel premise, character motivation/desire/weakness/conflict, first page analysis.
So any thoughts you may have will help!

Saturday I had the pleasure of getting signed copies of these two fab books by April Lurie.

April was at the Round Rock Barnes & Noble with her daughter (in picture) for the signing. I got there early, so the only two other people I knew were Greg and Cynthia Leitich Smith. Cynthia mentioned people wanting to move to Austin for the strong writing community. Yes! Please do! Our community rocks!

On a final, fun note for today, want to buy a castle? If you're willing to move to Philipsburg, PA and finish construction, this nice little structure could be yours for the right price. It does look tempting, doesn't it.


Christine M said...

These questions sound familiar! I'm going to be watching this space to see what people have to say!

PJ Hoover said...

:) I thought you would find them familiar!
I'm curious, too!

Marcia said...

The castle! The castle! I want the castle! My ivory tower awaits!

I think it's enough of an opening motivation for a character to want things back to normal. I mean, that's all many of us want when stuff hits the fan. It's like, "Oh please, just give me normal and I'll never fail to appreciate it again!" But the strongest plot will make the eventual stakes stronger, I think. We may tire of someone who doesn't grow beyond wanting normal. Unless this is a dark-ish book whose whole point is that the character strives for back to normal and gets it, and what used to be good is no longer good enough, or good at all, and the character either rues the day or doesn't even realize it?

I actually like books where we don't know all the stakes, and what the character has to be motivated to do or want, all at once. I think that tends to keep the plot more unpredictable.

PJ Hoover said...

I think there's room enough in the castle for all of us, Marcia! It is pretty cool!
Great input on the motivation! And unpredictable plots are good!

Devon Ellington said...

I think there's usually an initial motivation at the start of the story, which grows and changes as the characters grow and change during the course of the novel.

Oooh, that castle looks tempting. I wonder how much land is with it?

Lapillus said...

I've been using a new outlining process and have stumbled across a similar question/problem. In regards to character building, one question asks what the character's motivation is (abstractly) and another what their goal is (concretely).

I have found these questions surprisingly hard to answer, especially for the characters who matter to the story but are minor in comparison to the main characters.

I'm beginning to feel like a broken record because all my characters want to be loved and accepted for who they are... If they are making me think this hard they are probably questions worth my time to ponder!

PJ Hoover said...

I wondered about the land, too, Devon. I can see big trees growing around it and a platform up top for an observatory.
So motivation grows and changes with the characters. This is a nice way to look at it!

Funny about the broken record, Casey! I've been in that exact same situation. And they can't just all want that! There has to be something more - right?
These are hard questions when you really sit down and answer them.

Thanks for visiting!

beth said...

I wanna a castle!!! WAH!!!!!!!!

OK, motivation.

What is motivation?
--Why a character does something.

Is it enough for a character to want things to return to normal?

Is that a strong enough motivation for a novel?
--No. A character can start off wanting nothing more than a return to normalcy, but I would hope that by the end of the novel, the character would change, at least to some degree. The thing is, life can NEVER return to normal---life is constantly changing, and you can't change back. The character can start off with the motivation for a return to normalcy, but in the course of the novel he must grow to accept change at least on some level.

Or just to survive?
--Yes. Read Hatchet by Gary Paulson. (is that the right name?)

And what about changing motivation?
--Motivation can change throughout the course of a novel. In my English class, I use Cyrano de Bergerac to teach motivation. In it, Cyrano is in love with Roxane--every single action he ever does in the play is based on his love for Roxane. However, another character, Christian, is also in love with Roxane. He starts off the play wanting only to have Roxane love him back, but by the end of the play, he wants Roxane to love him for himself and, failing that, to just be happy. So, Cyrano's motivation never changes, but CHristian's does. Both are good.

So should the motivation be known from the very start?
--Yes, but it should not be explicitly stated. For example, you don't have to tell me that Cyrano is in love with Roxane--but show me that he's doing things that impress her. Motivation is part of character. Actions should happen because of motivation. You don't have tell what the motivation is, but you should show it through the characters actions.

PJ Hoover said...

What a fantastic comment, Beth! Thank you so much for taking the time to write all this out! I really appreciate it. And you use such great examples!

keri mikulski :) said...

How much is that castle?? :)

Motivation to me is what keeps the character moving through the story and keeps me wanting to read it. :) It has to be believable and shown through actions. Great questions.

PJ Hoover said...

No idea on the castle cost, Keri! I love the turret!
Really great points on believability and actions!

Carrie Harris said...

Yeah, I second (or third, or fourth) the comment that wanting normalcy is good for starters, but it's not enough to finish with. Sure, I like my normal life, and when things go all whack-a-ding-hoy, I want it to go back to normal, but there are particular things I miss and reasons why I want it. I don't like feeling off-kilter; I don't like missing my writing and reading time because it makes me feel even more off-kilter, and so on. I think it's the reasons that "normal" is so desirable that make for interesting characters.

Wow. I sound like maybe I know what I'm talking about. :)

Vivian said...

The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine is really good! And I have to say, Austin is looking mighty tempting....

PJ Hoover said...

You do know what you're talking about, Carrie! Great comment! So normal is desirable :) But in Austin, we have this saying - Keep Austin Weird. It's our own kind of normal.

Vivian, there's a house for sale on my street. It's not the castle, but you guys could move on in! And I'm really looking forward to reading Dylan!

Gottawrite Girl said...

This is such a nutritious stew of comments, here! I try and expose my characters through actions, only. The fear of lecturing lurks. Also, here’s another pitch for action-based motivation – in “On Writing,” Steven King ventures to say that readers typically lose interest because the writer got lost in the weeds of descriptive writing.

Also, I appreciate the comments that suggest there is an initial, base motivation, like returning to normalcy, but that others weave in and bring out different sides of the character. This feels true to my life experience – I have many different personalities that bubble up, based on how threatening or pleasing outside circumstances are at the time.

PJ Hoover said...

Good point, Susan! It's like we have overall motivations driving us forward, but our day to day motivations change daily and even hourly.

Angela said...

For me I think the best motivations are ones that the reader can connect to emotionally. They aren't something told to the reader or understood through passive observation. Nor are they the obvious motivations (so-and-so expects me to do this so I guess I will). Motivation that really grips happens when the character's need forces them to burst through opposition and conflict and act regardless of the cost. When that happens, we don't just understand the motivation, we root for them to succeed.

PJ Hoover said...

Hey Angela! Emotional connection does seem to be everything, doesn't it! The books I can't put down are the ones who seem to do this.
Great point!

Carrie Harris said...

Good point, PJ. "Normal" for me is probably something akin to "slightly skewed" for everyone else. But maybe that makes me an interesting character. Now if only I could find someone loopy enough to want to write a book about me...

PJ Hoover said...

See, Carrie, we need to get you a t-shirt that says, "Keep Carrie Slightly Skewed"
Actually, I'd like one of those, too.
"Keep PJ Slightly Skewed"

Angie Frazier said...

Oh that castle...very, um, esthetic :-)

I agree with Marcia in that the motivation needs to change for a MC throughout the novel, with the stakes rising unexpectedly. I just finished a novel (which shall remain unnamed) where the motivation didn't really grow or alter with the evolution of the MC. The stakes were pretty low IMO, though the setting and the events unfolding were enough to hold my attention.

Great conversation!

laurasmagicday said...

I think if your MC is a teenager the motivation can change on a dime. Motivations to teens can change in a heartbeat, on a whim. That's why I love them. As far as spilling it out? Depends on whether the book is written in 1st or 3rd person. If 1st the character probably hardly knows his or her self, thus keeping the reader guessing until the MC figures it out is juicy. If in the third, laying a few breadcrumbs but ultimately letting the reader figure out the motivation I think is a very compelling way to write a story, keep the reading asking why, turning the pages.

PJ Hoover said...

It could use some paint and trees, couldn't it, Angie! I also like the idea of increasing the stakes as the motivation changes. Would love to know what book you're talking about! Maybe I'll email you!

Laura, I love how you put that with their motivations changing on a dime. Totally! And what an interesting thing bringing in the first vs. third person thing. Great, great point!

Christine M said...

I've been following all this - very helpful stuff

And I forgot to mention before that I'd love that castle. Everyone needs a castle. It's good for inspiration.

PJ Hoover said...

I think the castle would make a perfect location for writing retreats for our critique group, Chris. What do you think? And PA isn't too far from NJ.