Motive: The Compass For Your Character

I know from experience that creating a character from scratch can be like trying to put together that fancy new desk you ordered online: there are a million pieces, something called an Allen wrench, and as you peer deep into the darkness of the big and now empty cardboard box, you realize with a sinking feeling that they’ve forgotten to include the assembly instructions (or that the instructions might as well be in hieroglyphs, for all the sense they make). Your living room’s a mess, you have no idea where to begin, and you’re about five seconds away from adding a new window to your apartment before sitting down in front of your computer (which is on the floor because you don’t have a desk) to bang out your most bitingly scathing review of the item on the manufacturer’s website.

By all means, write the review — that is a travesty; but take a calming breath because the quagmire you’re knee deep in now is actually very manageable.

To put together a desk (character) that is both sturdy (believable) and aesthetically pleasing (interesting), you have to find the anchor (motive), which, with desks, is usually that big slab of plywood that is the desk top. Since the desk top is usually the biggest piece of a desk, all or most of the other pieces are attached to it in some way. So is this true with characters and motive. Motive gives characters focus; it is what drives a character to do what he does, which, at stage one of the creation process, is the most important part you can devise. Does motive equal character? No. A character’s motive is your writer’s compass. You can take winding turns in the creation of your character (and by extension, your story) but, as long as you have your motive, it will all be in the right direction.

Therefore, before considering a name for your character; before considering how tall you want him to be, or that his quirk should be that he picks at his beard when he wants to say something but is not sure how to; before even deciding his ethnicity or personality, clearly defining what your character wants most in relation to the story you want to tell should absolutely be step one of your process. Most of the rest is garnish.

When creating a character’s motive, be sure to be specific in what the character’s motive is. “Wants to be rich” may be true for a character, but it is not strong enough to drive a story. For the purposes of the story, you must choose something more specific. What does he choose as his plan to get rich? Does he rob banks? Does he con people? Does he start a business? Once you have a specific motive set, you can then move on to why he chooses to get rich that way, and I have a sneaky feeling, once you have this, that the rest of his character will fall into place.

A caveat here: it is easy to fall into the obvious, the cliché, and the boring once you move into the “why” part of the motive. Don’t forget to strive for an interesting and unique character. This usually means scrapping the first “why” you come up with. Probably the second and third, too, for those tend to be obvious, cliché, and boring.

To avoid the obvious, the cliché, and the boring, create some limitations for the character’s motive. How far will he go, what is he willing to commit to achieve his goals? If you decided that your character wants to get rich by robbing banks, is he willing to kill a teller? A guard?

If your character is bucking for that big promotion at work, is she willing to sleep with her boss? Is she willing to sabotage her competition? How far is she willing to go to do so?

Is that ballplayer willing to risk suspension by injecting himself with steroids in order to carry his team to the championship?

Putting limitations on characters’ motives can often produce very complicated and engaging personalities.

You may also avoid clichés by combining multiple motives; more effectively so if these motives are contradictory.

Remember, just like the anchor may not be the heaviest or most important part of a ship, motive is not the heaviest or most important part of a character; however, it is the most important first step. Along with seeing it as a compass, think of motive like a banister or railing, something you can hold on to for balance while traversing the wobbly, vertigo-inducing broken-down rope bridge of creating a rich and interesting character.

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