Why Character Motivation is Key
Post written by Katie Wall.
I think most writers want to write a compelling story. They want their readers to be engaged and to keep turning the pages. They want people to rave about their book. They want to be known as a good storyteller. However, if they don't understand what actually makes a story compelling they will not be able to succeed with these goals.
Some people argue that plot is the most compelling thing about good stories. Others argue that well-developed characters are the most compelling. I argue, however, that a specific mixture of the two is what makes a compelling story.
Let me explain:
- To have a plot that is compelling means that you care about what happens. And what makes you care about what happens?
- Caring about the protagonist and what happens to them. And what makes you care about the protagonist and what happens to them?
- Having a well-developed protagonist with clearly defined, realistic, and relatable motivations.
You see, it's not as simple as plot versus character. If you have a well-developed character who is motivated toward a goal, then the plot events are the obstacles that the protagonist has to overcome to reach the goal. If the obstacles are not challenging and do not tie in directly to that motivation and that goal, then there will be dissonance between the plot and the character and the story will not be compelling.
Plot and character must work together to create that compelling story.
This is why, in our planning help package, we have our clients work to define their story guiding principle before we work on character and plot. Understanding the story point that you want to convey to your reader will shape the character your story will be about. It will shape your understanding of their beliefs and motivations and also shape what kinds of obstacles you choose to include in your plot.
After the story point is defined, that's when the character arc can be developed. Knowing what your character believes at the beginning of your story and how you want them to change over the course of your story will shape how you develop the plot in the next step.
So what is character motivation? Let's look at an example from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy (which you should read, if you haven't yet!). While I don't want to give too much away, I will say that the protagonist's goal throughout the series is to find and protect her daughter. This motivation drives every action she takes and is so raw and compelling throughout the story and is supported by everything that is revealed about the protagonist's backstory. Without N.K. Jemisin knowing this clear motivation, it would have been easy for her protagonist to choose all sorts of actions or reactions that would not have centered around a compelling core motivation. Instead, in this trilogy, the protagonist makes choices that drive her toward her goal, choices that have real consequences.
Our protagonists must take an active role in the story, otherwise there is no reason for readers to root for them. If events keep happening to the protagonist and they just lay down and take it, then the reader will not feel connected to them or feel compelled to follow their story.
As you can see, the protagonist's motivation drives them to act and react as the events in the plot unfold. Without a solid understanding of your protagonist's motivation, you might find that your protagonist "does things on their own" that you didn't account for in your plot outline (if you are writing with an outline). While it's true that you might think of new ideas or your character might act a slightly different way when you actually write out scenes, if you've taken your character's deep motivations into account when outlining your plot then you most likely will not feel as if your character is fighting against that plot.
Intertwining the plot and character arcs allows the reader to be fully engrossed in the story, because there's an organic reason for the character's actions.
So, if your plot-level outline doesn't feel quite right, look beyond that and make sure your story guiding principle and character arc and motivations are solid. Chances are that's where the issue is, and until you iron out those underlying problems your plot isn't going to work as well as it could.
Likewise, if your beta readers are telling you that they don't understand why a character is acting the way they are, or they don't feel satisfied with how things wrap up in the end, or they feel like too much is happening and aren't sure what the main story is, the problem isn't at the plot level. It's at the intersection between plot and character, since, for a story to be compelling, the character's arc of change and the plot must work together in harmony.
Looking for a craft book that talks more about this? Check out my review of Story Genius. Unsure about your choice of protagonist? Read my post about choosing your main character.
If you'd like support, see our FIRM Up Your Novel coaching packages for planning your novel or creating an outline to guide a revision or rewrite.
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