Tuesday, October 2, 2012

CHARACTERS: It's the Motivation that Counts

Since this is my first contribution to YAtopia, let me introduce myself: My name's Aimee L. Salter. I'm a YA author repped by Brittany Howard of the Corvisiero Literary Agency in New York. Later this year my agent will be submitting my debut manuscript to editors - a fact that still leaves me gobsmacked! 

I've been blogging for writers for a couple years all on my lonesome, and running a critique service for novice writers, so I was really excited when I was invited to join the YAtopia team. I read every comment on my blog(s) and reply when I can. I'm looking forward to getting to know some new writers here!

Now, down to business...

I do a lot of critiquing for other writers. I've been on YAtopia before, talking about some of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts. But there's one that I think deserves the spotlight all on its own: Character Motivations.

See, my motto is, you can do anything in a book. And I mean that. YA fiction in particular has some incredibly inventive fantasy elements and plot twists. But if you really want to take the reader into a whole new world, or behind the curtain of a crazy sky, there's one thing you need: Realistic motivations.

Unfortunately, time and again, I come across manuscripts with amazing and thoughtful premises that are driven by plots with only the flimsiest of character motivations to support them. And I've realized there's a very common theme among them:

The obstacles faced are only in the protagonist's mind.

- It's the woman who saw a ghost, but "just doesn't want to think about it", so she doesn't read the book her grandmother gave her on their bloody family history.

- It's the hero who has lost confidence in himself, so when the girl of his dreams smiles at him during a party, he tells himself she doesn't really want him to talk to her.

- It's the heroine who, though her (literally) angelic boyfriend is appearing in her dreams, declaring his love, she refuses point-blank to speak with him face to face. Instead, she continues telling herself he actually cares more for someone else.

- It's the hero who knows that people have died mysteriously in that canyon, but since he's there, and despite the fact that it's getting dark, he'll pull his car over and go for a walk because he's mad at his girlfriend.

You get the picture...

The problem with flimsy motivations is that they make the entire story unbelievable. Your characters don't have to do things exactly as the reader would do them - but they do have to act like a "normal person" would be expected to act. Without those believable motivations, the reader is unable to suspend disbelief. And when disbelief enters the mind, suddenly everything in the book starts to look sketchy.

So, how do you make sure your characters are realistically motivated?

1. Don't be afraid of the early reveal. Many authors believe that the mystery is what drives the book. Au contraire, my fine friends. Tension is what drives a book. It doesn't matter if your hero has the answer - what matters is what knowing the truth could do to him. For example: The young hero who fought with his girlfriend learned about a secret cult in the town as soon as he started looking for answers when his brother was killed. But the moment he took the name of the cult to the local librarian and asked for her help, he started receiving death threats. The townsfolk believe there are evil spirits out there. Our young hero knows differently. When he drove past that night, he didn't just decide to go for a walk. He saw lights flashing. He's going to take his phone and get pictures of whoever is out there and prove to everyone else these crimes are happening at the hands of real people.

2. If you must put an obstacle in the character's way to steer them away from gaining the answer early, make it something out of the character's control. For example: The woman who saw the ghost could pick up Grandma's book and begin reading, but not find anything in the first few chapters that has any connection to what she saw. She throws the book aside in frustration and it falls behind the bed. It isn't until the climactic chapters that something in her experience reminds her of something she read in those first chapters. She then has to find the book and keep reading to discover the nugget that will unlock the entire mystery.

3. If a misunderstanding has to stand between two people, make sure it's one we all hit in every day life. For example: The young man with no confidence attends a party wherein the girl of his dreams smiles at him across the room. For a moment, his heart soars - she wants to talk to him! But as he takes a step, the guy standing behind him waves at her and pushes forward. She seems happy to talk to him, so our young hero is convinced she was smiling at the other guy the whole time. We've all been in the embarrassing situation of thinking someone was waving to us when they weren't. We'll happily skulk off with the unconfident hero, shamed, and avoid anyone who might have seen what happened.

4. If the obstacle must be a feeling or philosophy held by the protagonist, help plausibility along with tangible reinforcement. For example: When obstinant girl with angelic boyfriend has the first dream wherein angel-boy is declaring his love, she wakes feeling great, resolved to talk to boyfriend and declare her love to see if it's real! Except, when she drives to his house, the jeep belonging to the hateful flirt in her class is outside... at six in the morning.

5. And finally, if a friend reads your book and says anything like "I wasn't sure a guy would actually say that..." or "Do you think someone would do that?", listen to their instincts. They aren't in the character's heads like you are. They don't see the nuances. They don't have the backstory. All they know is what's on the page. And if they can't quite buy it, they're probably right. That doesn't mean you need to change the story - it just means you need to find a better reason for those events and actions to occur.

Your Turn: Do you have a tricky plotting problem you aren't sure how to fix? Tell us about it, maybe we can help you come up with some realistic motivations!


  1. I don't have a plot point to mention at this time, however, the items you mention here give me something to work with as I go back to a couple of my works-in-progress so I can address some sticky situations :-)

    Thank you very much!

  2. This is an awesome post! It's inspired me to go back and fix a few thorny character problems :)


  3. Really simple but clever ways to turn a cliche YA into something more, love the implementation of tension in the mystery canyon example, much better than taking a walk :)

  4. You make such a great point and you said it so well. This is something I feel like I learned a lot with my most recent manuscript during the revision process.
    There were things I was saving for later in the story that I discovered created better tension when revealed earlier on.
    The really interesting thing though, is that while I've been learning that, hearing you present it the way you have in the post really solidified the lesson in my mind.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. You're so right - tension does drive the book! Great post - I'm going to bookmark for later reference!

  6. Brilliant advice, and great examples too. I'm definitely going to take another look at my characters' motivations in my current WIP. Thanks for the great post!

  7. Thank you for posting this. I am working on my first novel. Building tension is still somewhat of a mystery to me. I am full of ideas but I am worried that what I write will feel more like an empty shell then a compelling story. This post is exactly what I need right now. Thanks again!