by Andrea Lundgren
Characters do all kinds of things in fiction. Their actions make up the stories we write, and if they did nothing…it’d be pretty boring.
But how much motivation should there be in what they do? Do you, as the author, need to always know why they’re doing it, or can they just “do something for doing it”?
Let’s take a look at a scene and see how it works.
She walked over to the glass. On the other side was a habitat, all sand and rocks with only a few scaly plants, the surface of their stems mirroring that of the creature who should’ve been inside.
Slowly, she touched the glass. Her hand stayed there for a long moment, not moving, in firm but gentle contact against the clear silica-based partition until it slowly began to warm to her touch.
Then she backed away.
Now, we, as readers, don’t need to know why she touched the glass at this point in the story. It can be something we’re left to speculate about, wondering if she misses the creature or if she is trying to see whether, perhaps, it’s still hiding somewhere in there. Or we could later learn that she touches the glass out of solidarity with the creature, feeling like her own life is encased in glass and she longs to break free, to escape like the lizard or snake did.
Perhaps she’s running a fever or hot and flustered and the cool glass feels reassuring. Perhaps she’s comparing the smoothness of the glass with the harsh realities of the habitat inside. Or she could just be bored or curious or one of those people who just touches whatever is around them. But there will be a reason for her actions.
As a general rule, if it’s important enough for you to note in the story, it’s important enough for there to be a reason behind it, and by the time we get to the end of the book, we should be able to go back to the scene in question and, with greater understanding of the character, know why she does what she does. (Or at least guess.)
How Much Motivation Should You Show?
If you reveal all the secrets, it can take away some of the character’s mystery, but the more you show (and explain while showing) the more we know about the character and the more we can relate to them. Just keep in mind that sometimes readers like being able to guess why a character does what they’re doing, to intuit the motives without having them spelled out.
She walked over to the glass. On the other side was a habitat, all sand and rocks with only a few scaly plants, the surface of their stems mirroring that of the creature who should’ve been inside. Like her, it should’ve been somewhere else, but today was a holiday.
Slowly, she touched the glass. Her hand stayed there for a long moment, not moving, in firm but gentle contact against the clear silica-based partition. She had found a way out today; she’d conquered her cage, but she hadn’t broken free forever. The glass walls could still close in again.
She pulled her hand away and stepped back.
This version has some indication of what she’s thinking, but it doesn’t spell everything out, striking a balance between telling and showing. There is still plenty of mystery, but there’s enough hints to point readers in the right direction…to tell them if their guesses about her motivations are right or not.
This last one will spell out everything, moving us much closer to the character and letting us experience everything as she does. This can create a stronger bond with the character, but it does remove any mystery as to how she’s feeling and why she’s doing what she does.
She walked over to the glass. She was tired of her routine. Coming to the zoo was a magical break in her orderly life. She should’ve been looking at the animals, taking advantage of every moment to enjoy herself, but instead, she was attracted to this exhibit. No one else had gathered around, and perhaps that was what she liked. It was quiet, still…empty.
On the other side of the glass was a habitat, all sand and rocks with only a few scaly plants, the surface of their stems mirroring that of the creature who should’ve been inside. It was a reptile. Like her, it’d have a tough outer skin. A job of lounging around and doing nothing, letting people watch her. Only, of course, the zoo didn’t allow for selfies; they might hurt the precious creatures who lived there. “If only we took such care of the humans who are on display,” she thought to herself.
Slowly, she touched the glass. Her hand stayed there for a long moment, not moving, in firm but gentle contact against the clear silica-based partition. She usually liked the way glass felt, so faultless, so smooth, but this expanse wasn’t comforting. It felt like she was the caged on, the world she wanted to experience just inches away on the other side. She had found a way out today; she’d conquered her “prized habitat,” but she hadn’t broken free forever. The glass walls could still close in again.
She pulled her hand away and stepped back.
As you can see from all three examples, what she does is a simple action with increasing complex reasons for why she does what she does. Depending on the style of your story, you might want to leave readers guessing, or you might want to spell everything out. But what you don’t want to do is leave them shaking their heads, saying, “That action felt…convenient. Like it just happens because it needs to happen.” Even if you, the author, haven’t figured out why your characters act the way they do, chances are, they have a reason.
And the sooner you find out what it is, the better you can write them.
Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. Andrea enjoys books and all things writing–from how we write to why we write–and her blog explores things from a writer’s point of view.
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Historically, I write down what I’m shown. If later I find out that “Nichole’s gaze lingered on Chieftain Adam’s profile” is actually important, I’ll go back and allude to why it might have been important.
Otherwise, no. We’re all on autopilot for 95% of our day. Our characters are, too.
Excellent points. Too often the writer doesn’t fully understand the character’s motivations. As is often the case in the so-called real world, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Getting it tonally wrong is WAY worse than giving no reason at all.
I would think it would also make a difference as to where, in the story, this passage was happening. Towards the beginning, I wouldn’t want to reveal too much but close to the middle, I’d want the reader to know. more.
The passage is an interesting one.