Monday, June 25, 2012

Conquering the Problem of Unmotivated Characters

I've had the privilege and honor of judging the Colorado Gold contest again this year, and have seen some very intriguing concepts and compelling ideas surface within the entrants' manuscript pages and synopses. However, as is often the case, there appears to be a few problems overall that affected most of the entries. So without giving anything away and still upholding the anonymity of the entrants, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of these story problem areas.

The problem of unmotivated characters, in their behavior and actions, is common in stories by new writers (and some experienced writers, too). This doesn't necessarily happen because the motivations don't exist, but because the author knows what they are and fails to relay this to the reader. It's not unusual to get so close to our stories that we're unable to see what's missing. So I'm hoping what I have to say in this post may help other writers fix this potential problem in their own work.

In Media Res - Most writers are familiar with this term. It's a method for starting the story in the middle of the action, and it's a fabulous tool for getting a story to hit the ground running. That's our hook, right? The action is meant to get the juices flowing, put tension and conflict front and center, rev up the reader's interest so that the last thing they want to do is close the book, set it down on the night stand and turn out the light.

This is what in media res is supposed to do, but when handled incorrectly it results in confusion and frustration for the reader. Why? Because characters start out doing cool and interesting stuff for no apparent reason. What you have isn't a hook, but a string of unmotivated actions and behaviors from a character or characters the reader hardly even knows.

In at least half of the entries I judged this year, it felt like I was plopped in the middle of a book without a compass to show me the way. I wanted to flip back to see what I'd missed, but there were no earlier pages. This is where the writer chose to start the book because they'd either misinterpreted what in media res means, or they're just so caught up in their own story that they don't see the forest for the trees. I also blame movies and television for planting these ideas in writers' heads. Some writers tend to focus on the visuals without giving thought to the viscerals. That's a huge mistake.

How can this problem be fixed? With one simple word: Why. You need to ask yourself this question constantly as you write, because if you don't know the answer, your reader won't either and they'll start filling in the blanks for themselves. Not good. Take control of your story and the characters in the driver's seat to make sure they stay on the road and have a direction firmly in mind.

I'll make up an example to try to illustrate part of what I mean. Let's say John murders Joe. The book starts with John standing over the body, his clothes bloody, and a half empty bottle of booze in his hand. All kinds of questions spring to mind. So we read on to find out if John did it and why. The beginning, such as it is, isn't a bad way to start, but if you have John exhibit ambiguous behavior to force him to appear deep and interesting, you have a hot mess on your hands. If he's sobbing and there's paragraph after paragraph of random memories about Joe without any apparent connection to John, this leads to more questions than answers. By chapter's end, we still don't know why John did it, or even if he did, but he seems remorseful. And angry. And grief-stricken. Now he wants to kill himself. Why? Who the hell knows? This potentially gut-wrenching story has a failed start because the motivation behind the characters' actions and behavior is missing.

This is why so many authors rewrite their first chapter over and over and over again. It's super difficult to get it right the first time. The example above might serve well as a prewriting exercise for the beginning of this hypothetical book. Now that we know how John reacts to his heinous deed, we need to figure out why he did it and how that ties in with his behavior, and then we need to give the reader these answers in an actively satisfying way.

This example is the direct opposite of the other problem I came across in all the entries I judged, but I'll save that topic for a later post.

How would you solve the problem with John in the hypothetical example above?


Linda Bell said...

Very well done. Good action request: just say "Why"?

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Linda. I find that asking "why" all the time helps me keep the story on track.

Unknown said...

Great advice, Karen! I tend to go through several edits and have CPs who'll happily butcher my work for its own good.

That "why" question works wonders. I also think there's a fine line between answering the question and dumping a ton of backstory in. (Guilty!)

Thanks for a great post!


Anonymous said...

Hi, Karen.

When you're looking at a muddled start, I think it can help to suggest that the author always know the major emotion felt by each of his characters at every moment in the story. Anger, regret, satisfaction, relief--any of those might be John's dominant emotion, having just killed Joe. (Did I get the characters' names switched there?) Then the author can check to make sure actions, internal monologue, and viscerals match up to that emotion.

It's fine to do layered, conflicting, or quick-cycling emotions, but--as you suggest--it's easy to the confuse the reader.


Paty Jager said...

Great post, Karen. It is important to always know why your characters are doing what they do and conveying it to the reader.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Melia and Paty!

Thanks for dropping by, Greta. Well, knowing "how" a character feels is important, but knowing "why" they feel it is equally so. The problem I'm seeing is characters roiling with an emotional stew of anger, remorse, grief, etc., and no REASON to back it up. Without motivation behind those feelings you end up with a melodramatic mish mosh that has the reader rolling her eyes as she contemplates her grocery list instead of the book she's trying to read.

If a writer conveys emotion without stimulus, he or she is assuming readers will know why the character is feeling a certain way. That's incorrect. For example, if John feels grief, is it because he murdered Joe? Maybe, maybe not. This emotion is out of context when we don't know "why" Joe was murdered.

If John feels remorse after murdering Joe for revenge, it has a new layer of meaning. If John feels remorse after murdering Joe in a jealous rage, we have a totally different layer of meaning. This is the point I was making in my post. Feelings without stimulus are ambiguous and blah. Stories are richer for their layers of motivation and emotional response because you can't have one without the other.