Character and Conflict Part2: Motivation

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Having read - a lot - a definite way for me to want to throw a book at the wall is when the narrative either loses sight of the conflict or an author struggles to develop one. As a reader, a lack of or an unclear conflict can feel like sitting in a staff meeting without a purpose. Whether you’re a writer who wants to write a more cohesive story, or a reader who’s developing their critique technique, one thing to look for in respect to believable and developed conflict is the main character’s motivation.

Characters - if developed as a round, dynamic, fleshed out character - are motivated to act. Their movements don’t just spontaneously combust into forward movement for the sake of moving plot. If they do, there is a problem with author insertion and adding to a reader’s awareness of a plot feeling contrived. If you aren’t sure why a character makes a choice in the action or dialogue, or feel confused by it, chances are the character’s motivation isn’t clearly defined or the author is intruding.

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

Motivation for a character, just like in our own lives outside of the pages, can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the internal means of propelling a character based on internal desires. Harry Potter, for example, in The Sorcerer and the Stone (J.K. Rowling) was motivated to understand who he was outside the Dursleys. He wanted to know more about his past which propelled him on a journey toward personal enlightenment. Intrinsic motivation. Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien), however, was motivated to get the one ring out of the Shire in order to keep his home safe from an external danger. Extrinsic motivation. While the stories begin with a specific sort of motivation - internal or external - this doesn’t mean the motivation won’t change. We see both Harry and Frodo undergo changes along the journey to change what motivates their choices, just as that occurs in our own lives.

I took a wonderful class many years ago that helped me as a creative writer. The class was called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. Character motivation was one idea which really stuck with me. A simple tool Mr. Watt presented which I have used over and over in my own writing is the following sentence:

If (Main Character) can (fill in the blank) then s/he can (fill in the blank).

Here’s an example from Star Wars: A New Hope:

If Luke Skywalker can get off Tatooine then he can be happy.

This is Luke’s reality in the opening of the movie. A clear motivation which propels his curiosity. The longer we follow his journey, however, his initial motivation shifts as the he moves forward in the hero’s journey. When his family is murdered, his motivation shifts. This is a mirror to reality; our motivation is constantly shifting based on attained goals, redefined wants, and personal desires.

So to mirror Luke’s shift in motivation:

If Luke Skywalker can help the rebellion he can avenge his family’s death.

It is important to follow the motivation to the root, however. As the above example shows there are still questions: Why does Luke want to avenge his family?

If Luke can avenge his family then he can clear his conscious for leaving them.

A round and dynamic character’s motivation will always modify and shift as the journey shapes her; that is what makes her more relatable to readers. These changes in motivation whether intrinsic or extrinsic are often rooted in the journey (which if you aren’t familiar with Chris Vogler’s work on the Joseph Campbell monomyth be sure to look it up). As the story moves forward, the motivation serves as a guide for interaction with other characters, propels the main character’s choices, and determines forward action which is believable rather than contrived.

Think about your favorite novel or your current work in progress. Can you create an If/can, then/can statement?

Up Next: Pacing your story . . .

Hero's Journey: Jane Crosses the Threshold

Samwise Gamgee, the steady and dependable sidekick of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein said, “Mr. Frodo, if I take one more step, it will be the farthest from home I have ever been.”  That’s how I felt looking at the threshold of the airplane I was boarding in Montreal, Quebec on a flight headed for Athens, Greece.

How many thousands of feet are we in this aluminum can? Don't think about it.

How many thousands of feet are we in this aluminum can? Don't think about it.

If I am the hero of my own little life’s journey, I’m not the most interesting of hero’s.  We’ve already established this fact. I’m pretty ordinary. Ordinary Jane. I love my home and while I dream about, write about, and read about adventure, I'm content to do so from the comfort of my couch.  I’m about as spontaneous as a pot of cold water set on the stove to boil, unless you consider Internet shopping spontaneous. The notion that I haven’t been further from home than the 73-degrees West longitude and this airplane I’m boarding is about to take off from that mark on the globe and take me to the 23-degrees East of Athens, is sobering. I’ll cross the Prime Meridian, for goodness sakes. The idea of this trip to Greece and Italy was definitely more romantically exciting in theory, but now that I’m on my way, I feel the fear bouncing around in my chest like billiard balls knocking against each other.

This is my life partner's happy face. No lie. That is his ecstatic face.

This is my life partner's happy face. No lie. That is his ecstatic face.

The moment I entered that airplane and took my seat, I Crossed the First Threshold, another step in Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth.”  The first threshold represents the point in the hero’s journey in which she completely commits to the journey by crossing out of the ordinary world with which she is comfortable into the unknown.  By doing so, the hero enters into the fantastic mysterious world committing to a journey she can’t control; however, she understands that it is only through commitment to this journey that she will be able to return home to the ordinary world.

As the plane takes off, my mind wanders considering everything that could go wrong.  What if I lose my passport? What if my purse gets stolen? What if the luggage doesn’t get there? The “what-if” questions rage like a hungry wildfire in my mind.  Then I feel my husband’s hand in mine; a calm covers me when I let go of the fear and consider the romantic notions that have defined me up to this point. The wildfire of “what-ifs” are silenced and my imagination begins to piece together a beautiful story about all of the possibilities of how this trip will go right. I smile with my husband’s hand in mine and I settle into the seat on the airplane taking me far from home.  

We made it to Athens safely with no mishaps.

We made it to Athens safely with no mishaps.

Hero's Journey: Jane Goes on an Adventure

The telephone rings obnoxiously pulling me from a writing zone in which every word is flowing brilliantly. “Would someone please get that?” I yell while continuing to write my future Pulitzer winner.

The shrill ring of the phone continues, now grating against my thoughts and tearing holes in my concentration. With an irritated growl I get up from my office chair to get that freaking phone and decide that I need to turn off the ringer when I’m writing.

“Hello?” The sound of my voice might have come out a little harsher than it should.  

“Ms. Walters?”


"This is adventure calling."

“What the . . .”


[And scene . . .]  


So it didn’t really happen like that. Me?  Writing a Pulitzer?  In my dreams! Ha.

The truth was, it was a phone call from my husband.  “Guess what,” he’d said. His voice didn’t betray any emotion, like usual. He leaves the dramatics for me.  

“What is it?” I asked.  Of course, I really was thinking about getting back to my office chair and the blinking cursor of the computer where my work in progress was waiting and for once, actually flowing.  I’d finally climbed through the ninth circle of Dante's hell of doubt and writer’s block and was moving forward.

“We have a trip to Greece if we want it.”

Hit the brakes. “What?” I ask.  I mean, this is coming from my husband. The guy who doesn’t want to travel outside of the United States. Heck, it's hard enough getting him to leave work for a staycation!

“I earned it through work.”

“That’s awesome!”

“If I go, I’m thinking I should take Office Minion number one.”  I knew he was joking, trying to irritate me. That’s his thing: See how quickly he can get my temper from 0 to 100. And he always wins it.

“If you take Office Minion #1, you can consider yourself served with divorce papers,”  I joke.

He laughs. “Wow.  Divorce huh?”

“You’re taking me.”  My romantic idealism kicks in.

“You’d want to go? Two weeks in Greece and Italy.”

I hesitate a split-second, consider that this is a once in a life-time opportunity in which I could get my husband out of the country.  “Yes!” You see, he’s the realist. I’m a balloon filled with dreams and flopping around in the breezy sky while he holds me tethered to the earth.

So Europe. Greece. Italy. The idea fills me with excitement and inspiration, with the romantic notion of the writer on a journey to create the great novel.  Passport photo taken and applied for, grandparents trip planned to stay with the kiddos (furry and otherwise). Plane ticket purchased. Then the worrying starts, the questions that have some time to take hold and puncture little holes in the balloon so it begins to deflate. What if something bad happens?  Then grandparents arrive, and holy crap, this trip is really going to happen! What was I thinking?

In Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, this is the the moment when the hero is challenged with The Call to Adventure.  This is when the hero's Ordinary World is about to change and there is no going back.  Remember: I love my Ordinary World. I love home and the romantic idealism of traveling, or being Indiana Jones sidekick, or solving the mystery of the Mona Lisa that I imagine from my comfortable couch.  Now, faced with the reality of leaving my Ordinary World, I’m terrified of how my world is about to change. The tire screeching in my brain is a cacophony and stench of hot rubber on asphalt, and I realize there’s no stopping now because the momentum of this vehicle isn’t changing course.  It’s either steer it forward along the road, or roll it into the ditch.

The hero is faced with accepting The Call to Adventure or denying the call.  Here’s the thing though, the hero never really has a choice - the call has happened and even if she wants to deny the call, her Ordinary World will never be the same.  Think about it - the moment my husband said, “We have the opportunity to go to Europe” and imagine we chose not to go, there would always be the “what if” hanging over us. So the Ordinary World shifts anyway.

But we didn’t say “no, thanks.”  We committed to the journey, and so there’s no going back. We’re about to get on an airplane having accepted the Call to Adventure and our Ordinary World will never be the same.


Awesome hubby and I on a plane at the onset of our 24 hour journey to Athens, Greece.

Awesome hubby and I on a plane at the onset of our 24 hour journey to Athens, Greece.