What’s your motive? A closer look at character motivation.

I came across a great post today by Elissa Lauren Field in which she examines her characters motivations. (You can find that post here.)  She shares a kernel of wisdom from another blogger, E.B. Pike (here) that I will also re-share (here).

E.B. suggests that your work as a writer will be made easier if you take the time before you begin to write to understand your character’s motivation(s).  Become intimately familiar with your character’s goals.  Those goals can be defined as “what your character is fighting for.”  As the writer, you can think of learning about these motivations as a form of psychotherapy.  Take your character into your office and invite them to lie down on the black leather couch.  Ask them to take their shoes off and talk about their mother.

It turns out that being nice to your characters isn’t in the writer’s job description.  E.B. goes on to state that knowing about the goals enables you to throw some “roadblocks” up in front of your characters.  After all, it isn’t fun to sit down to a book in which everything goes swimmingly for the characters all the time.  It wouldn’t be much fun to write either.

To aid you in your Sigmund Freud routine, she lays out a six-step plan of attack.  I’ve copied the steps here as they were posted and re-posted:

  1. Write down your character’s name
  2. Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible
  3. Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?
  4. Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.
  5. Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.
  6. You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

What I enjoyed about Elissa Field’s post was that she actually followed these steps with two of her characters, laying them down on the black leather couch and asking them about their mothers.  I haven’t spent any time in Sigmund Freud’s office, but I imagine that it was a relatively private place, where people didn’t get to watch the sessions through the windows.  Elissa, on the other hand, psychoanalyzed her characters in the most public setting possible: the Internet.  So kudos to her for her bravery.

And now, with a hefty dose of creative license, I’d like to try!  I’ll take a close look at the main character from my (currently unpublished) novel, Minzanto.

(Speaking into brass-plated intercom mounted on my desk) “Ms. Jones, would you please send in Mr. Rees?  I’m ready to see him now.”

A youngish man with brown hair and a patchy growth of stubble enters the office.  He is dressed in battered denim jeans and a flannel shirt.  Both articles of clothing are clearly hand-made.  After he has removed his boots and stretched himself over the black leather couch, I remind him that he is free to leave at any time.

“What is your name?” I ask.

“Julian Rees.”

His voice is dry, and I ask him if he would like something to drink.

“No, I’m fine,” he says.

I wait until his breathing has slowed, then say, “Julian, I’m going to ask you to tell me, in three words, what is it that you want?”

I see the tendons in his hands go tight and his lips press together, as if he wishes to keep the words in.

“To forget Maria,” he says finally.

My eyes move over my clipboard and the information there.  Three years ago, Julian’s wife, Maria, and his infant daughter burned to death in an accidental cabin fire.  I know that he blames himself for not being home to save them, and I suspect that the guilt he feels has festered into a self-loathing—a conviction that he should have died with them.

I learn that since their deaths he has followed the Appalachian Mountains northeastward, working dead-end jobs and living in tenements, falling deeper and deeper into depression and debt.  He says he wants to forget Maria. But what I see in front of me is a man who is trying to run away from himself.

“Julian, where are you going?”

He turns his head sharply towards me, as if surprised, then sighs. “God, I wish I knew.  Anyplace but here.  Minzanto, I guess.”


“Yeah.”  He reaches into his pocket and pulls up a folded slip of newspaper.  “Some place up in Vermont.  I saw it in this ad.  A job offering to pay in gold.  I need the money.”

I examine the advertisement.  It says nothing else—no mention of what sort of work is waiting for him in this town, Minzanto.

“And will you be able to forget Maria there?”

For a moment, he is perfectly still, as if moulded from rubber.  His eyes close slowly, and when he opens them again, his lashes are wet.


He despairs of forgetting her, and so he hopes to forget himself.  I want to tell him that if he desires to know happiness again, he must let go.  He must forgive himself, and experience the forgiveness that Maria would surely give him if only she were able.  But Julian’s heart has been filled with pain for so long that he no longer hopes for happiness.  He expects nothing but suffering.

“Do you believe, Julian, that ‘misery loves company’?”

“No,” he says. “I think a man can be so down that all he wants is to hole up and never see another living soul.  No do-gooders or people trying to help. No one.”

“Then why are you here, Julian?”

“To forget Maria.”

I hesitate. “I don’t think you ever will.”

He looks at me, and I see fear in his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You won’t forget her, Julian.  She is a part of you, a vine grown into the very cracks of you.  To forget her would be to forget yourself.”

Julian’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling above us. He inhales deeply, then exhales.

“So there’s no hope?” he asks.  His voice is barely a whisper.

“Of course there’s hope,” I say. “Julian, go out and find people—normal people.  People who share this world of happiness and bitterness and laughter and pain.  Find them and learn about them, and I promise you’ll see there is hope.”

He looks at me, and I see distrust in his face.

“It’s that easy?”

“It won’t be easy, Julian.  In fact, it will probably be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s the only way I know of towards forgiveness and healing and happiness.”

Julian sits up and slips his feet into his boots. He fits the cuffs of his jeans over the tops, then rises and shakes my hand.  Unexpectedly, he smiles.

“What do I owe you, Doc?”

“It’s on the house,” I say.

I know I strayed from the formula is it was handed down by E.B., but I had fun, and I think I see Julian’s motivations in a slightly different light than I have previously.  I can think of many more characters that would benefit from this kind of thorough examination.

Ahem… Ms. Jones, would you please send in…

About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

4 Responses to What’s your motive? A closer look at character motivation.

  1. elissa field says:

    I love it: you set the list in scene! My characters are going to be jealous they didn’t get a couch while I roughed them about. 🙂 I’m glad you shared this.

  2. Pingback: Before Page One: Planning My Novel | Jack Frey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: