There are numerous jokes in the theatre world about motivation. There’s a rather famous one in “Noises off” when the director tells a character to take the groceries into the living room. “So, What’s my motivation?” the character asks. The audience knows that the motivation is that someone else just went into the kitchen and the whole point of a farce is to make sure that characters miss each other. That doesn’t help the actor much who is trying for all he’s worth to play the character honestly with real motivation. The farce isn’t funny if it’s too obvious that the director is just trying to keep the characters apart.
Motivation is a constant discussion in rehearsals – not just as a joke either. The joke is funny because it is so real. Actors – especially method actors – spend a lot of time worrying, imagining and altering their motivations so that the lines come out as though that really was what the character would say. It’s what makes for a genuine performance. The really funny thing about it all is that the motivation comes from the lines. The script is the holy grail of motivation. Your motivation matches the lines – not the other way around.
Script writers, the good ones anyway, know this. They write the motivation in so the actors can find it easily. They make sure that the characters lines are consistent with one personality. That way, the actors can make those lines sing. Often we don’t give the script writers enough credit for a good performance, though we are quick to see when they’ve done a poor job of it.
As fiction writers, we need to play both the script writer and the actor (and director, scene, light and sound designers too – but we’ll leave those for another post). We have to give our characters the lines to say, and the motivation to say them. We need to make it clear that there is a good reason to take the groceries into the living room.
Why is it so important?
The answer is really simple. Readers want to read about real people, not pawns in a great game. Real people do things, everything, for a good reason. Not that we always know what that good reason is, but it’s there. Think through your day. Just about everything you did was motivated. There was some desire that your actions satisfied – even if that desire was just to get rid of the boredom.
Characters, whether they are in a play or a book, need to do the same thing. They need to cross the room and get a drink because they are thirsty. Or maybe to break out of an uncomfortable conversation. Maybe it’s to get away from the guy who’s getting a little too close or get closer to the one who’s standing at the bar. What they can’t do is move to the bar to get out of the way of the totally unexpected explosion that’s going to kill all the people at the table they were just sitting at. That might be why YOU, the author, want them at the bar, but it can’t be why they want to be at the bar.
The more common (and in my opinion more annoying) place that motivation is left out is with the “bad guy”. You can’t have your Big Bad do evil things just because he’s, well, evil. It’s the other way around. He’s evil because he does evil things. Now why does he do evil things? What’s his motivation? More importantly, does he even think that he’s doing evil things?
Dictators around the world and throughout history have really and truly believed that they were doing what is right for their people. Never mind that their definitions of “right” and “their people” may not have been the best. Hitler believed that eliminating the weaker portions of society would make for a stronger society. We can argue about whether that is even true without looking too hard at what he saw as weak (which I’m sure we all agree was a bad definition). The point is, he thought he was doing good.
On a smaller scale, people cheat on their partners with real motivation. Mostly it’s selfish – “I want more than my partner is willing to give” – but it’s real. Thieves believe that they are due. Murders have a reason – individual to each murderer. I’m not suggesting that when you look into the perspective of the bad guy you are going to find a hero in disguise. A power hungry mage is going to do all kinds of nasty things, possibly even knowing that they are nasty and evil. That doesn’t matter, because in her calculation, killing the family of the protagonist is just one more step toward the power she so desires. Being nice is not her motivation – getting power is.
At the same time, your hero shouldn’t do things just because it’s heroic. You can have a character who desires to do the right thing – sometimes that won’t be the right course to the end of the story. Sometimes there will be hard choices. That motivation has to stay true even when it’s hard on the plot. The right thing is to make sure that the rescued children make it home safe, even when the plot wants the character to move on.
All of this means that YOU the author must carefully structure your motivations for your characters so that they will do naturally the things you want them to do. Rescuing the children might be a side effect so sending them home without verifying that they get there wouldn’t be so problematic. If the children were supposed to be sacrificed to the mage’s great power, simply releasing them will thwart the mage and weaken her. Then our hero can dash in and avenge his family. Or, you don’t have to have the children there at all.
However you handle it, make sure that when your characters ask “What’s my motivation?” you have an answer.