Finding Motivation When You Have None

I’m going to share with you one of my lowest moments as a writer. After finishing one of my first novels, The Bargain, I began work on my next project—an ambitious undertaking with high literary merit. At the time, I was still working on my MFA. I approached my mentor with the concept, and he loved it. I turned in the first twenty pages. My mentor was far less impressed with the prose than he was with the idea. It was the characters, he said. “Do you really know who these people are?”

I rattled off a list of what I thought were defining characteristics: name and occupation, age and favorite words. I sent him an entire character sketch sheet, an exhaustive one at that (one I created, so perhaps that was the problem). I sent him photos of people I physically modeled the characters after. But it didn’t help.

He suggested something that I’ll pass along to you, in case you find yourself in a similar situation. He asked me to write a series of disconnected scenes from different characters POVs, focusing on different defining moments in their lives. I did this, blindly, terribly at first. I changed the tense, moved from person to person in point of view. I worked at it until I finally found the voice of my protagonists.

I had no idea how I did it, other than the fact that I worked my tail off to do it. But, in retrospect, I think what I found was the character’s motivation. Once I had that, the story was a lot easier, and I was much more eager to work on it.

Let’s be honest, we all get burnt out. Writing is work. There are days we’d rather not turn the computer on at all. How do we get past that? One way is to make sure you know your characters’ motivations. You’ll feel their desperation, or their confidence. You’ll feed off that to move the story along until they achieve their desires, or meet a more tragic end.

Whatever the case may be, your characters must have a reason to move forward. Another mentor of mine mentioned that tension comes from opposing desires. If ever you have trouble coming up with conflict, take two people who want opposite things and throw them in a room together. For example, a prosecuting lawyer who wants to prove he has what it takes to be a DA. On the other side of the courtroom, the defense attorney must win this case to keep his practice open. While this isn’t enough for a novel, it’s a great start.

On my current novel, it occurs to me that one of my favorite characters may not be consistent (a problem that arises from not understanding your character’s motivation), and she definitely won’t be as compelling to a reader as she is to me (we writers always love our characters more than our readers). It occurred to me today that I don’t fully understand her motivation. I know why she’s in the story. I know her role and what purpose she serves. But what is her motivation to be where she is? Or what is her motivation to be elsewhere? That’s what I spent the majority of today doing, thinking of one of my favorite characters, poking around in her head and sifting through her history. Not only will this improve my story, it will increase my desire to write.

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