Monday 18 June 2012

What Makes Your Character Think That'll Work?

If a character’s family is in dire financial straits and our hero decides to rob a bank to pay off the debts that are threatening to make his family homeless, you can probably accept that as a plot for a certain kind of story.

However, if you start writing that story with just that information what you will get is a pretty flat, unengaging tale. The key element missing from the summary I provided above is why — why does the MC come up with that solution?

If you don’t know that, you don’t have a story.

Obviously, he needs money and banks have lots of money, but if I were to come up with this plan in real life nobody would think it was a daring and exciting way to pay off my mortgage, they would think I was an idiot. Just because theoretically the idea is a solution to the problem doesn’t make it a viable one, not in real life and not in fiction.

The MC needs a specific and believable reason for his actions. Maybe he used to be a bank robber but gave it up when he settled down. Or perhaps he designed the security system for the bank so knows how to bypass it. These are basic Hollywood clichés, but you can see once I give our guy a specific relevant trait, the story then makes sense.

That’s a fairly boy's own sort of example. Here’s something for the ladies. High school girl who isn’t all that popular, just a girl getting by. Captain of the football team has a row with his girlfriend (head cheerleader or some such), they break up, he’s now single. Our girl decides she’s going to make a play for him. She used to be best friends with him when they were young kids, then he got handsome and strong and popular and she was all geeky and awkward and they drifted apart. Now she decides she’s going to win him back.

So, pretty standard teen romcom style story which you can probably see sort of working.

I guarantee you it will not work—not as described anyway.

The question isn’t how will she go about winning his heart, the question is why — why would she think she’s got a shot? Why would she even bother?

If the answer is ‘just because’ or ‘sometimes people go for it’ then that’s no answer at all. For someone to do something completely out of character or just on the odd chance it might work (and hey, what do you know, thanks to a benevolent writer things somehow work out in her favour, what a surprise!) is not believable.

It’s important to know your character’s specific reasons why they think whatever they decide to do is a good idea, and to make sure the reader knows too. 

Often in WIPs the reasons are presented as part of the mystery aspect of the story. Keep reading and all will be revealed. But that is a very basic mistake, and most often is just a way to hide the fact that the writer hasn’t come up with a reason and is hoping something will occur to them as they write.

It won’t.

The reader needs to know why this character is suitable for this plot from the outset. Plot is an extension of character. What they do tells us who they are. Random behaviour tells us nothing.

You can add supplemental reasons later, or even reveal more honest reasons, but you can’t have no reason. Because without them the reader won’t keep reading, and what good is your fantastic reveal at the end of the book if no one reads that far?
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There has to be a reason to motivate the character!

DRC said...

'Why' is a powerful question I always ask. It also helps to get to know your character, to know what drives them and how they think. By knowing this adds depth and strength to any novel.

Great post - even though I now seem like a little kid asking why to every

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post. Why characters are motivated to do the things they do could be considered the guts of the story, without which, there is no digesting the story.

Veronica Sicoe said...

Nothing's more important than a believable protagonist, and nothing makes him less so than haphazard choices without re-traceable logic behind them.
Thanks for a great post, mood!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Isn't it fun to dig deep, deeper, deepest into characters' motivations? Great post Vero!

Nicole Pyles said...

Good post. I had to change the beginning to my current novel a bit to explain the "why." In my very first draft, she did something out of character for her and I had trouble explaining. In my rewrite, I explained it. (The behavior before had been she left home to escape danger but never followed up with her family. VERY out of character as my main character is close to her family. Rewrite had her family catch up with her and contained a formal "send off" for the journey ahead.)

mooderino said...

@Alex-both to motivate them and make sense of their choices.

@DRC-it can also be a scary question for insecure writers, but one worth faving up to.

@Bish-for some reason your comment made me feel hungry.


@Jaye-thanks, from both me and Vero.

Brent Wescott said...

"You can't have no reason." Nice. I will be remembering this one.

mooderino said...

@Nicole-Good thing we get to rewrite the story.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Authors really need to ask "why" at every plot point in their outline in order to make sure that they have a cohesive story.

mshatch said...

awesome post. I wish Ridley Scott had read it.

dolorah said...

When I first started writing my short story from the POV of a serial killer, I had to ask a lot of Why questions. Even after deciding her was a Werewolf I still had to ask that final Why that gave an actual plot to the action.

That Why question can be a lot of hard work and take the story concept weird places.


mooderino said...


@mshatch-to be fair he doesn't write the movie, he just takes the money, er, I mean directs the movie.

@Donna-absolutely, especially if you're in a pretty weird place to start with.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, by the way, for pointing out somethign that infuriates me. "Just keep reading..." Sure, sometimes as writers we have to pace things a certain way, especially if there's a twist or a surprise pending. Using it as a means of getting more words and trying to draw a reader in is just plain bullshit though.

I'm in complete agreement with you that rarely do people (fictional or real) do anything without a damn good reason. Barring the occasional sociopath, we all think about things at least a little bit. And for the people intellectually challenged enough to not look past the obvious repercussions, odds are pretty good something will come along to stop them from even attempting their particular caper.

mooderino said...

@Jason-I think even poor reasoning can work if you can see why the character believes it. Even a sociopath thinks he has a good reason.

LD Masterson said...

Sometimes it's too easy to let situation or job serve as motive. The MC is a cop so, of course, he's chasing the bad guy. True but there's got to be something more.

mooderino said...

@LD - certainly it helps to have something more. Sometimes a job would be at least a start.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Spot on, as always. Motivation needs to be justified.

mooderino said...


Maria Mainero said...

Good points--especially about letting the reader know. My beta readers really help me here. As author, I know my character in and out, so all the choices are obvious. But a new reader will call you out, say "I'm frustrated, I don't understand why that's so important to her."

And then you're explaining all this stuff and the light bulb goes on--oh, I probably should include some of that in the book. Yeah.

mooderino said...

@Maria-I get that quite often when someone will respond to a critique with a lenghty explanation. I have to remind them they can't write answers to all their readers, needs to be in the book.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great post, Moody. My publication primer leader brought that out for me in the piece I'd submitted for critique. We need to dig deeper, to get into the real motivations going on in our characters' minds.

"If you don’t know that, you don’t have a story."

Yep, or your characters are shallow and two dimensional.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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