20 August 2012

Character Motivations

The last few posts have been about characters, and their positive and negative traits. Negative traits are equally as important as positive ones, because no one likes a perfect protagonist, and even a positive trait can become negative if taken to an extreme.

One thing I haven't mentioned is physical description. When I'm reading I'm quite happy with my own visualisation of the character, and I've often got that firmly in my mind before reading a description, but there are some books where a description of a character is vital to the plot. Look through some magazines if you are having difficulties with picturing your character, or take the elements you like most in your favourite actors and make a composite of them - though thinking of police photo-fit pictures that might not be such a great idea!

Whatever our characters look like, their personality and temperament is far more important in making them believable. 

Once we have rounded our their character, using whatever tools we feel best, we must make sure they are true to those traits. One of the most annoying things when reading a book, or watching a film, is a person doing something totally out of character. Plot should not drive our characters. They need to act in character, or we should signal the reasons for change.

In Lives Interrupted, Kate has a happy, outgoing personality and thinks that life is a breeze. After she is nearly killed in a bomb explosion these traits change dramatically, but given the circumstances that is believable.

In my current work in progress (Lies of the Dead), Tom begins as someone who isn't keen on change and prefers to take his time making decisions. When his brother commits suicide, Tom needs to know why. As he discovers things about his brother, events and other characters don't allow him the luxury of time. This initiates changes in him, and so by the end of the book Tom makes choices he wouldn't have considered at the beginning, but they aren't irrational. We've moved with him and understand the changes.

Our characters need to have hopes and fears, as opposed to perfect skin and make-up. Okay maybe they can have perfect skin, but they also need the hopes and fears that make them believable.

They must make choices that are realistic for them, not because the plot demands it. Remember, they drive the plot and not the other way round. When they come up against a challenge, we have to consider their traits and motivations to know what they will choose to do.

What motivates your character? What has happened in their past that makes them act the way they do? This doesn't have to appear in your story, but you and the reader need to know enough about them to understand their motivations.

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