Writing workshop: Character motivation

I always have ten things I want to blog about, and barely enough time to write even one of them. I’ve been meaning to blog about the Emerald City Writer’s Conference, but since I don’t have time to cover everything, I’ll just blog about the workshop I found the most valuable, and how I used what I learned to improve my WIP.

This was a workshop on Motivation, by Terry McLaughlin.

While some fiction genres are plot-driven, a romance novel is character-driven and thus is centered around what we call the GMC–Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. The “G” is your character’s goal–that thing she desperately wants or needs. The “M” is her motivation–why she wants it so badly. And the “C” is the conflict–the obstacle that prevents her from reaching it.

The protagonist of my WIP Gamer Girl has a clear goal, and there’s a clear conflict preventing her from reaching it. But she’s weak on motivation. I had my “G” and “C” nailed, but my “M” was lacking. Which is why I chose to attend this workshop. I needed help.

Motivation is super important. Without, characters can be unsympathetic, and their actions may not make sense to the reader. On the other hand, if character motivation is clear, you can take the reader just about anywhere. Most readers would not be sympathetic to an assassin character who seduces and kills people. But if they know her motivation–she’s working for a resistance movement to free her enslaved country–she becomes likeable, or at the very least understandable.

The presenter gave an example. Imagine a scene where the hero, a cop, pulls over the heroine’s car for drunk driving. There’s an implied motivation for his action. He’s a cop and pulling over drunk drivers is his job. But what if you take it a level deeper? His father was an alcoholic, and after growing up in that household, he’s sworn off drinking. Now his motivation for pulling the car over is more sympathetic. What if we take it deeper still? Once he was at a party and he had one beer. He refused to drive after drinking that beer, but ended up getting in the car with someone who’d had 3. That driver then struck and killed a little girl.

That’s a little too soap opera for my own writing, but you can see that each additional layer of motivation you give the character makes him more sympathetic. A character who’s rabidly opposed to drinking could easily come off as annoying and self-righteous. But give him those deeper layers of motivation, and he becomes likeable. This dynamic is often the very core of a romance novel. A character starts the novel with some sort of annoying behavior, and at first you don’t like him, but later you learn his motivation for the behavior, and your opinion of him does an about-face.

I believe the GMC technique, mandatory for the romance genre, has great value for other genres as well.

The presenter had us divide into groups. She gave us each a picture of a person, and we were to invent a goal for that person plus at least two levels of motivation for that goal. We had fun with this assignment, and we found we could easily come up with more than two levels of motivation. You just keep going deeper and deeper, and the character gets more and more three-dimensional and likeable.

Back at my writing desk, I tried to apply the technique to Ashley, the main character of Gamer Girl, and I immediately ran into a problem. Motivation usually comes from past events in a character’s life. Past stresses, past hurts. But Ashley was 15 years old! She didn’t have a lot of life experience to draw on. Her goal is to get a date with Brandon, the soccer star at her school whom she has a crush on. But what’s her motivation? I figured she just plain had a crush on him. Happens to all of us at that age, right? I didn’t think any additional motivation was necessary.

However, I found readers were not connecting with Ashley’s goal the way I wanted them to, so after a week or so of thinking about it, I found a way to deepen her motivation, and I did do it by going back to a past event. Now she has a crush on Brandon because he rescued her from a bully when she was in the 6th grade, and she’s been obsessed with him ever since.

I’ve only just made this change in the novel, and I haven’t sent it to my critique partners yet, but I think it’s a huge improvement. Now Ashley’s pursuit of Brandon is more understandable, and she comes off as sympathetic rather than shallow.

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5 Responses to Writing workshop: Character motivation

  1. Thanks, Amy. It’s so easy to forget that motivation part. After reading this, I now realize that I need to look a little deeper into the motivation of the hero in my current WIP. Maybe my lack of understanding that has been the thing I’ve been struggling with for so many weeks. Sometimes in the wash of details and plotlines and goal setting, it’s easy to forget those simple things that are so crucial to writing a good story. Good luck with yours!

  2. Amy Raby says:

    Thank you! I think I tend to forget motivation sometimes because I know and like my characters from the start, else I wouldn’t spend hours upon hours writing about them. But I forget sometimes that the reader doesn’t come into the story liking my characters. I have to give them a reason to like the character, and usually that involves giving the character a strong and clear motivation. I’m glad I got the reminder at ECWC because I’ve started a new novel and now I can make sure I work the “M” into the story from the beginning!

  3. This was some really good advice. Thanks for including it. :)

  4. Karen says:

    Amy, I have been cruising the web looking for a great explanation of motivation. Thank you for sharing this, it was most helpful.

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