Thursday, June 05, 2014

How to Write a Novel : Motivation

First I would like to thank the lovely Kat Carlson, D.J. Niko and the not quite as lovely but certainly very nice Jim DeFelice for their contributions to the blog over the past month. Other guest bloggers will appear on a staggered schedule. The reason it is staggered is that there is no telling when someone will hand in a blog post. Sort of like real life for editors at publishing houses.

I'm going to bounce back to our discussion of character for today's post. A lot of this is based on considering things after I read comments and e-mails people send me. I think we might have overlooked an important aspect to any novel.  As we know, a good novel must have conflict. But a character must have motivation. The motive of your character is what will drive their actions.

It's easy to make a bad guy crazy and use that as justification for his actions.  Serial killers are, by definition, psychopaths. They need no justification. But most people aren't really psychopaths. Put yourself in your character's position. What would be the motivation of a cop? Would it be simply to solve the crime or are there deeper issues? What would be the motivation for a lawyer? A quick and easy paycheck or the search for the truth?

That doesn't mean your character cannot go through an evolution of motivation. They may start the novel with one goal, but learn, over time, what's really important. There are a few instances of doing the explanation and motivation in reverse order. To me, the clearest example is one I've used before: Thomas Harris's exceptional character Hannibal Lecter. In the early books, (and movies for that matter), it's easy to write off Lecter's motivation and say he  is simply a madman. Just a soulless monster who kills and eats his victims. Happens every day. But wait. As we read the prequel, or in my case watch the movie, we see Hannibal Lecter as a teenager in Europe during World War II and the horrific events that shaped his life and turned him into the monster we first came to love in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

Your character's motivation is something you should put a lot of thought into. Understand what makes them tick and what would drive them to do something. Will it push your cop over the edge and make him break the law to stop the killer? Will the motivation to save a child turn a priest into a killer? I have no idea, that just popped into my head.

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I can use an example from the book I wrote with Lou Dobbs, Border War. The main villain in this series is Ramon Herrera, a Mexican industrialist who actually controls a cartel. In the first book he starts out as simply a drug lord looking for money, but as events occur across several books, he comes to hate the US more than he loves money. That nationalistic motivation fuels him to do remarkably diabolical things. His motivation evolved just like it might in real life. He started out as a simple drug Lord, but has become much more. If I were to be totally honest, he was barely a character in one of the early drafts until my co-writer and editor saw the value of an over-arching villain with real power. That is the sort of advantage that comes from working with others.

Think about your motivation for things you do every day.  My motivation for writing these blogs is a fear of Patty Smiley and, to a lesser extent, Jackie Winspear. Patty, because I know what she’s capable of if she is provoked and Jackie because of the accent.  My motivation to write novels is quite simply a love of writing, with a need for cash flow thrown in.

No one said you only needed a single motivation to take action.

This week's quotes are classics:

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
—Jack Kerouac
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway


  1. good Hemingway quote

  2. Motivation is sometimes expressed as the character's "need" or "desire." (Those are actually two different things. John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story" talks about them in the context of screenwriting, but the same principles apply to writing novels.) Good post. I'll put on my Facebook page.

  3. "My motivation for writing these blogs is a fear of Patty Smiley and, to a lesser extent, Jackie Winspear. Patty, because I know what she’s capable of if she is provoked and Jackie because of the accent."

    At long last I get the recognition I deserve.

    Seriously, when I first started writing I created a cheat-sheet for each scene including the following questions: 1) what does my character want? 2) who opposes her? and 3) What is the outcome?

  4. James O. Born6/05/2014 12:17 PM

    Whatever you say, Patty, I agree with. You are the smartest, most beautiful, most caring and generous person I know. And, you rock.

    1. You have obviously never read the cautionary tale about a guy named Pinocchio but next time you pass a mirror, check out your nose :O)

  5. James O. Born6/05/2014 12:18 PM

    And Paul, thank you for the post on Facebook. You were actually instrumental in talking me into these posts as well. I enjoy finally putting all my thoughts into actual text now.