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.

Fart Proudly, America: Benjamin Franklin’s Gastriconomical Theory And Use

Every month, McOwlerson endeavors to bring into the spotlight a literary figure of consequence who has made a significant contribution to the heart, soul and mind of our society. Some will be old favorites; others new discoveries. The literary spotlight is designed to increase our readers’ literary awareness, so that they may remember that the arts are an integral part of our society. It may not build bridges, house the homeless or cure diseases, but it feeds our souls, nurtures our spirits and whets our understanding of the world around us.

Therefore, kicking off the new year for us is an old favorite, a great man and a great American — a statesman, a scientist, an innovator and a philosopher: Benjamin Franklin.

In honor of our BF, for the month of January, we at McOwlerson salute one of the most beneficial and primal freedoms we enjoy in America: the Freedom of Speech and Press. Or lack thereof, as some have argued.

Carl Japikse is among those who believe that we have lost our freedom to speak our minds. In 2003, Japikse edited a collection of works by Benjamin Franklin that “you never read in school” designed to portray the more roguish and satirical side of the founding father. Japikse postulated that Franklin saw the freedom of speech and press and the unwillingness to exercise it akin to farting in public, in that it is likely to offend anyone in the vicinity. Franklin, according to Japikse, would have rather let it fly, to rip one right in the face of whoever was closest because being “so retained contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, etc, often destructive of the Constitution, and sometimes of Life itself” (Japikse 15). In both his introduction and his afterword, Japikse calls on what he views as a waning freedom of speech in America, and uses Franklin as an inspiration and a model for a level of free speech that Americans should be striving to recapture.

Truthfully, it is difficult to grasp exactly what Japikse’s view of the issue is, as he makes two contradicting claims in the book. In his introduction, Japikse says that the American people are afraid of exercising their freedom of speech — that “they have allowed themselves to be censored, not by the government, but by the horrid specter of Social Conformity and Niceness” (Japikse, 9).

However, in his afterword, in which he describes a dream where he is given a visitor’s pass to heaven so to have a one on one conversation with Benjamin Franklin, Japikse makes an entirely different claim for how the American people have lost their freedom of speech, as evident in the following excerpt:

“To whom has [the Modern American] given this freedom?” I asked.

“To the government, of course,” Franklin replied.

“But isn’t the government of the people, for the people, and by the people?”

“In my time, it was. Even in the time of Abraham Lincoln, it was. But it is no more. You have given your freedoms and liberties away — not entirely, but to such a great extent that it is no longer anything but an exercise in nostalgia to say that America is a free country.” (Japikse, 119-120)

Setting aside the boldness of that last statement, Japikse, here, changes his argument from blaming “Social Conformity and Niceness” for the lack of freedom of speech to claiming that the government has covertly taken it away, or that the people have become so lazy and stupid that they have inadvertently given their freedom away. This is a very distressing inconsistency because the latter means that citizens are being censored by the government, which would be in violation of the bill of rights, a travesty would provide grounds for rebellion. This is not the case.

Frankly, having read the assembled pieces written by Benjamin Franklin, within which the reader is free of the yammering voice of Mr. Japikse conoluting the issue, I find myself nauseated and offended that such a man would presume to be able to speak for Franklin in Franklin’s own voice. The decision to use the fictional dream dialogue approach to make his points about the government and society as a whole in relation to freedom was a poor one. Though he claims authority on the matter, he appears to neither fully understand what he argues nor even agree with himself on what he believes.

If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, would he recognize America? Honestly, I think he would. I think he would say that she has a few nasty boils and pimples pocking her face, that her eyes have grown brutish and nearsighted, that she is missing a few appendages — most notably, her ears — but, yes, I think he would still recognize America, still love her and still be proud of her.

***

The majority of Americans, I would say, believe that their right to the freedom of speech gives them leave to say whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want, to whomever the hell they want. What is worse, they are proud of this misconception. They do not understand that the freedom is from governmental censure. The government cannot tell you what to say, prevent you from saying something, or impose legal penalties on what you say (barring certain “Offense” and “Harm” principles [see van Mill’s “Freedom of Speech”]). This is still, without a doubt, a freedom that we enjoy in America.

However, this does not extend to censorship by your peers. If you say something that they disagree with or that offends them, then they are perfectly within their rights to censor you.

For example, in an October 19, 2011 article for the Daily Herald, Chuck Goudie mentioned a story he reported that week for an ABC affiliate involving a TSA officer at O’Hare International Airport who was suspended and later fired for posting hundreds of “crude and graphic statements” on his Facebook page that targeted minority groups and some politicians. The officer, Roy Egan, defended the comments by saying they were his opinions and were therefore protected by his right to freedom of speech. This is not how it works.

As Goudie opined, “Employers do not have to allow their employees to say anything they want. Remember, the Constitution only protects from governmental suppression. A boss, a corporate board member or a parent can suppress all they want.”

Delta Airlines was able to censor this man because, one: Delta Airlines is not a governmental organization, and two: the man was under a contract of employment with the company. Without the contract, he and Delta Airlines are simply peers, and he can suffer no legal censorship from them. The contract made him a representative of the company, who is free to control how their image is portrayed. Since the man tarnished their image, they were free to terminate his contract. However, this is the extent to which they could censor him.

***

Keep in mind that if you have something controversial to say (which is the best kind, according to Benjamin Franklin), there will be consequences. You will come under criticism, from both the ignorant and the educated, but this criticism will not be impinging on your freedom of speech as a civil liberty. The freedom of speech does not mean you get to say whatever the hell you want whenever the hell you want to whomever the hell you want without reprisal. The rest of the nation is not legally required to agree with you or legally prohibited from speaking out against you. If what you say is going to piss off a large and powerful population in the country (say, Christians), do not expect to hide behind your right of freedom of speech; it will not fly. They are completely within their rights to be upset with you.

Herein lays the essence of the problem. While the government has no right to censor you, and while your peers have no legal grounds to do the same, you may still be bullied into silence by the sheer bearing weight of the majorities.

This is the argument for the loss of freedom of speech, of press, that Mr. Japikse was correct about. We have not given away our freedom of speech to the government; here, Mr. Japikse is wrong. We have simply been bullied into silence by one sensitive and overbearing majority or another who will not abide, or are irrecoverably terrified by, controversy — majorities that are ugly, nearsighted and brutish (and also often ignorant, dismissive and prejudiced). These majorities, which exist on both the conservative and liberal ends of spectrum, are equally and characteristically prone to generalizing, to blindly listening for certain offensive keywords in arguments counter to their beliefs and mercilessly pouncing on them with rejoinders, deaf to the rest of the argument and despite any sense other parts of the argument might make. One only has to look to the present calamity that is Congress to see examples of this.

A note to the reader: I understand that this, in itself, is a generalization (and by generalization, I mean the clumping of a certain group of people together by a particular perceived likeness, regardless of any profound characteristics that would merit starkly different subgroups; in simpler terms, a prejudicial generalization). I apologize for this, but it is necessary to illustrate the point at hand and I have neither the time nor the energy (nor you the patience, I imagine) to go into the differentiations that would remedy this. I can therefore only say that I understand that what I have postulated is a generalization and I am aware of, and allow for, the existence of exceptions to that generalization (i.e., not all Republicans are crazy).

To get back on point, it is this tendency for majorities to have a stubbornly general view of the world and to deafly dominate those who would challenge it. Consider this excerpt from David van Mill’s essay, “Freedom of Speech.” The text he references and quotes is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill:

Chapter III of On Liberty is an incredible assault on social censorship, expressed through the tyranny of the majority, because it produces stunted, pinched, hidebound and withered individuals: “everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship…it does not occur to them to have any inclination except what is customary” (1978, 58).

He continues:

the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind…at present individuals are lost in the crowd…the only power deserving the name is that of masses…it does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. (1978, 63-4)

With these comments, and many of a similar ilk, Mill demonstrates his distaste of the apathetic, fickle, tedious, frightened and dangerous majority.

This further illustrates the oppressiveness of majorities over the freedom of expression, which, as evident in the strong pattern of inherited ideas versus adopted ideas that such majorities facilitate and encourage, is a serious and growing problem in this country. There seems to be a dire need to clarify to the general public that the main opponent of free speech in America is social, not governmental censorship.

Social censorship had no place in Benjamin Franklin’s vocabulary, as Japikse made clear in his book. Franklin made it his life’s pursuit to better serve America and its society. As an inventor, as a scientist, as a writer, he endeavored to make Americans’ lives easier and richer. He did not shy away from controversy because controversy inspired dialogue, which led to understanding. Controversy causes people to think and debate. Mr. Franklin, through causing people to think and debate, pushed them, as a society, to be the best they could be.

Therefore, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, I urge everyone with something to say to have the courage to say their something with something of a gusto. Fart proudly, America. Do not let the fear of offending someone prevent you from starting a dialogue that will further enrich our society, and do not slander and libel those that already do this, even if you are irrevocably offended by what they say. Listen to what they say, consider  the principles, then, if still offended, attack them with reason and logic.

Do not be silenced, and do not force silence on others. This is true freedom of speech.

by Dan Morgan

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Dan Morgan is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of McOwlerson Magazine.

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References

Japikse, Carl, ed. Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School. Berkely, Calif.: Frog Books, 2003.

Goudie, Chuck. “Before crying ‘freedom of speech’ you should know what it means.” The Daily Herald 19 Oct. 2011. Accessed 9 Dec. 2011. <http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20111017/news/710169875/>

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869.

Link accessed on 10 Dec. 2011: http://www.serendipity.li/jsmill/on_lib.html

van Mill, David, “Freedom of Speech”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/freedom-speech>

Further Reading

http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Freedom_of_speech

http://www.constitution.org/jsm/liberty.htm

http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/intro.jsp

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