As people, we’re often judged by what we do. To a large extent, we are what we do. However, because others’ perceptions of our actions don’t penetrate to the reasons behind our actions, we’re often judged incorrectly, or even unjustly. It’s no different for our characters. In a book, as much as in life, a person’s actions are crucial. Readers want to understand this person by seeing what he does. However, often, it’s a character’s motive that matters even more. In his book Characters & Viewpoint, bestselling science-fiction author Orson Scott Card explains:
Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts. What a character does, no matter how awful or how good, is never morally absolute: What seemed to be murder may turn out to have been self-defense, madness, or illusion; what seemed to be a kiss may turn out to have been betrayal, deception, or an irony… A character is what he does, yes—but even more, a character is what he means to do.
Creating a character who acts in exciting and larger-than-life ways is wonderful, but unless this character also has a reason for these actions, he will ultimately fail to capture readers’ attention. Giving a character a motive (which inevitably extends to a goal, which hopefully inspires an immediate obstacle, which fortunately creates innate conflict) is vital.
Without an awareness of Raskolnikov’s motive, reprehensible as it is, for killing the old woman in Fyodor Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment, readers would never have stuck around for 600 pages. If we didn’t understand that Jane Austen’s titular Emma had good intentions behind her blundering interference in her friends’ lives, we would have abandoned her after a few chapters. Even characters, such as Luke Skywalker or Clark Kent, whose actions are definably good, become boring unless we understand the motives behind their behavior.
It’s not enough to create a character who does interesting things. He must also do them for interesting reasons. This is a principle that allows authors all kinds of exciting space to play. We can match motive to action to present a straightforward character (such as Luke Skywalker), but we can also create infinite layers of complexity and intrigue by presenting a character whose actions and motives don’t always seem to align (such as Bruce Wayne in the Christopher Nolan movies).
Unlike fiction, in which we have the tendency to generously dole out black and white designations, motives and actions aren’t always clear in real life. Becoming aware of, and taking advantage of, these complex dichotomies can raise our fiction to a whole new level by deepening our characters, creating subplots, and, perhaps most importantly of all, offering readers stories they can sink their teeth into and chew on for a while. Orson Scott Card sums up nicely:
We never fully understand other people’s motives in real life. In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motives with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.
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