Character Motivation

We recently watched Battle: Los Angeles for the umpteenth time. The plot is very simple: A group of Marines led by a Staff Sergeant on the verge of retiring must rescue civilians trapped behind enemy lines after a devastatingly brutal alien invasion.

Battle offers a lot to viewers. The Marines are the underdogs. (I like a good underdog story.) The acting is great, the production top-notch. That said, this isn’t a movie to look to if you want a deep, nuanced study of character. There is something authors can learn about crafting characters from Battle, however, and it comes from one, pointed question: Why do the aliens invade Earth?

When Aliens Invade

This is one question that bothers me time and again with alien invasion movies, from Battlefield Earth to Independence Day and a lot in between. It isn’t until nearly halfway through Battle: Los Angeles that we learn the “leading hypothesis” behind why the aliens are there: For our natural resources, specifically our liquid-state water, which the aliens use to power their technology.

Now, let’s skip the obvious holes here, like how the aliens invented technology dependent upon liquid water, which, according to one of Battle’s televised experts, isn’t found anywhere else in the “known universe.” Frozen water is presumably more plentiful. We have it here in our own solar system, but we also have other forms of water. Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, is believed to have liquid water. So why didn’t the aliens target that moon, where no one would put up any resistance?

And this brings me to my point. Having aliens invade Earth for our natural resources has nothing to do with the aliens’ motivation and everything to do with needing a reason to have them here. It’s a cop out plot, trite and a bit overused, but it works for the big screen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many aliens invading us to steal our water, nor would we have so many fans of this particular trope, me included.

Defining a Character’s Motivation

Too many times, authors fail to adequately define their characters’ motivations. Or, worse, all motivations revolve around either thwarting or aiding the central character’s purpose. This leads to poorly developed stories with tissue thin plots. Some readers will be fine with this, sure. Most readers won’t be, and they’ll be ticked at having wasted their time on an author who didn’t respect their intelligence by crafting a more solid story.

Now, a lot of writers’ guides out there (books, blogs, and so on) recommend character worksheets that detail everything from the character’s physical appearance to their preference in vehicles.

I don’t. Those are details that can be captured as you’re developing and/or writing your story. But guess which one thing I always know? You got it. Your characters’ motivations are the driving force behind the twists and turns your story will take, if you handle them correctly. Fail to do so and you wind up with cardboard cutouts and stereotypes, like a villain who is evil just because or the secondary character who shows up once as a plot device and never again.

Why Is That Character Doing That?

My favorite way to discover character motivation is to simply set him or her loose in my head with the story’s other characters, sit back, and watch what happens. Sometimes, they wander off and get up to their own mischief, as Levi Ewart did during the writing of Tempered (Daughters of the People, Book 3.5). He ended up with his own book, by the way. Naughty boy.

But sometimes, you discover a lot of back story that really helps you figure out why a character acts the way he does. Take the Seven Sisters, the progenitors of the People in the Daughters of the People Series. They had a clear motivation for acting as they did, as was spelled out in the Legend of Beginnings and the prologue of The Prophecy (Book 1). It also set up the scenario for the entire series, so it’s something that’s referred to again and again, sometimes so obliquely, readers may miss it until something else happens to draw their attention to it.

What about the bad guys, though? What motivates them to act as they do?

Too often, authors fail to ask this question and simply use their story’s villain as a foil for their hero. Why not add depth to the story by discovering what that villain’s motivation is? Lukas Alexiou, the current leader of the Shadow Enemy in the Daughters of the People Series, is clearly deeply motivated for everything he does, from kidnapping Amelia Terhune in The Prophecy to aiding Rebecca the Blade’s rescue of her daughter Jerusha in Sanctuary (Book 5).

Some of that motivation is hinted at in the epilogue of In All Things, Balance (Book 4), but the rest won’t be revealed until the final three books are released. Until then, readers will simply have to keep guessing, and believe me, they do. Discovering Lukas’ secrets is one of the things that keeps readers hooked on the series. Actually, it’s one of the things that keeps me hooked writing it, and I know what he’s up to!

The series would fall flat if I hadn’t taken the time to discover what really motivates Lukas, and it would suffer in the telling. Readers are intelligent. Give them some meat to chew on, including making villains equally as complex as the main characters.

Give It a Twist

Someone once said (and I really can’t remember who) that writers shouldn’t latch on to the first idea they have, that they should keep digging until they’ve twisted the idea into something unexpected.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s something to keep in mind when trying to discover a character’s motivation. Sometimes, the first thing they present to you may not be what truly moves them to action. It’s a front, a false face they wear in order to protect themselves from close scrutiny, just as humans do in real life. Dig a little deeper, see if there’s something else at work, and you may just discover a surprise that will shove your story to a whole new level.

Above all, have fun. Like everything else writers do, teasing out a character’s nuances is work, but it’s also interesting, like cracking open a geode and finding an intricate and unique arrangement of crystals in a variety of hues and formations. That’s your character’s inner world. It’s up to you to share it with your readers.

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