Initiating a new fiction story can be enjoyable. Like an artist with a blank canvas, the writer approaches an unlimited range of options.... (continued below)
Character Motivation in Fiction
By Bruce L. Cook
Initiating a new fiction story can be enjoyable. Like an artist with a blank canvas, the writer approaches an unlimited range of options. At this point, character and setting become especially important. However, when introducing a new participant, it’s worthwhile to flesh the character out right away. In fact, it’s a best practice to review manuscript after the first draft just to ensure that each character has a full description.
When the character first appears (or soon after), it’s essential to adopt a unique description. In this consideration the writer thinks of thick-set jaws, narrowed eyes, puffy checks, unshaven chins, and so forth. Naturally, the character’s appearance should conform to his or her actions later in the story. An evil character might have an unshaven chin and narrow eyes, while the protagonist might possess puffy cheeks and thick eyeglasses. As a related consideration, each character should have a unique voice in dialogue. (Please avoid the common error among new writers where every character’s voice is precisely the voice of the author!)
A second, subtler consideration is easy to ignore. Here the writer needs to carefully develop the character’s motivation– the character’s purpose in the story. In some cases, a minor character is present just to link story elements together or complete an action. However, for the main characters, motivation is necessary to give the story thrust and continuity.
For example, think of a routine crime story in which the protagonist searches for the perpetrator of a misdeed. If the search itself is the only motive, the story would be less compelling than a situation where the protagonist has a noble purpose, such as defending someone’s honor, restoring stolen property, or some other cause.
As an example, think of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Surely that story offers a full description of the man and, later, his hands. But what if the story only centered on his purpose of catching a big fish. While this motivation is literally acceptable, the story only stands out because he is catching the fish for the boy. In this case, as with others, the story’s success depends on the author’s handling of character description and motive.
Ultimately, to avoid falling into the cheap fiction category, it’s important for every fiction story to prove some social or spiritual truth, and character motivation is the key.
In many ways, motivation is the motor for your stories.
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