Wednesday 4 June 2014

IWSG: Motivating My Troops


That is what's been bothering me lately. And, I'm not talking about my own motivation, though it has waxed and waned these past few months. The motivation I'm referring to is that of my characters.

I'm a blackbelt panster. But for the first time, I outlined a story from start to finish. It's a basic outline using index cards for chapter headings and I managed to plan out the general plot. What would have taken a plotter one afternoon to finish, took me over a week, nevertheless finishing the outline is pretty exciting for me.

Though painful as it was, outlining allowed me to answer the questions one must ask while drafting a story:

The Who (identify and name my main and secondary characters through basic character profiling) 

The What (what each of my characters do and their importance within the story)

The When (the present)

The Where (Earth)

The How (how my characters accomplish the things they need to do)

The only question I haven't been able to completely nail down is The Why. Why are my characters doing all this awesome and scary stuff?


What motivates my characters? What drives their actions? It's the most important question to answer and it must be believable to the reader. The answer to this will be the driving force throughout the entire book and it will dictate how characters respond to, well, everything in the story. 

I've been able to answer The little why, in the immediate sense, their day-to-day motives,  but The BIG Why, which is anchored in backstory, is still unclear at best. Without The Why, then everything else in my story unravels at the seams. If I can't convince the reader what motivates my characters, then what's the point of reading on?  

Gosh Batman, this writing stuff is hard.


Many thanks to Alex Cavanaugh our IWSG super-host and his awesome team of co-hosts this month. To find out more about the IWSG monthly bloghop, or the IWSG website, feel free to click the highlited links or the button on my sidebar.


  1. I find that it's almost better to work the other way around. Start with the why. Start with the themes of the novel and give everyone a take on the theme that's uniquely their own. Then you know that they all fit, and they're all motivated.

  2. What motivates them? Well, what are their goals? That's usually what motivates characters.
    And one afternoon? It takes me months to outline a manuscript...

  3. I know you're a plotter, so this advice might not help you.
    But if I were you I would start writing.

    My characters reveal their motivation as they develop on the page. I was halfway through the first draft of the second Eighth Day book before I realized the motivation of the alternate POV character. And I was THREE QUARTERS of the way through Book 3 before I realized an important aspect of a new character's motivation.

    Obviously the first drafts of those two bucks sucked. But the second drafts were kickin'!

  4. Obviously, things like hunger, fatigue, lust, and other basic human wants/needs drive hour-by-hour behavior. On a grander scale, I think it would be things like greed (money and or power), altruism, revenge, etc.

    Did one group oppress another?
    Did someone deceive someone else, either on small or large scale?
    Does one group have something the other group wants or needs?

    I wonder if a book on archetypes might help.

    Good luck. I agree with Alex. Plotting takes way longer than an afternoon. It's good to ponder things and not decide everything right away. It's like an onion, Donkey. Layers. Lots and lots of layers. :P

    IWSG #215 until Alex culls the list again.

  5. I find that I can only plan and plot so much before I need to start the actual writing. It's the writing itself that often provides the answers I need to some of those big "why" questions. It usually means more work in the long run - revising, etc - but it seems to be how I work.

    Hang in there! You'll find your way through.

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

  6. Holly heck, it sure is. It is an important questions, but as a consummate plotter, the character motivation does evolve during the first draft and edits. Don't force it. It will come to you.

  7. Motivation is definitely the key and usually something I think about first. What do my characters want more than anything? What will happen if they don't get it?

    I'm a pantser myself (although I did outline one novel before sitting down to write) and I do try to answer those questions first but like Madeline said, sometimes the writing itself provides the answers.

  8. At one of my conferences we had a speaker indicate that motivation is something every character in every scene has. I'm like, huh? I guess if you think about it, George may be motivated to have sex with Betty, but Betty might be motivated to gain George's respect. :D Oh well, now I guess I have to be conscious of all my characters while writing? ARRRGH!!

  9. Start writing and the why will come. As characters grow in your mind and on the page, they will take on a life of their own and start speaking to you. Yes, it is hard, but you can do it!

    (It also helps for me to carry my characters with me in real life (in my head). What would be their favorite food, favorite song, how would they vote...get to know them.)

  10. Indeed it is a hard job. And I think it's becoming harder each time I set out to write something new. How can that be?

  11. Wait...I'm supposed to know why my characters do the things they do?

    Excuse me...

  12. The why and who usually come to me first. I'm big on goal-setting, and goals and dreams for my characters usually fuel the story.

  13. Maybe they have a case of fleas and really really need to go to some far off land to find the flea killer? No? Worth a try, lol

  14. Sometimes when you start writing the 'what' the why becomes apparent. When the characters start acting and reacting on paper, their motivations are more understandable. At least, that's how it's worked for me.

  15. I find that the better I know my characters, the easier it is to know what their driving force is, which is why I always sit everyone down and talk to them before I start.

    That said, sometimes I still don't know, so this is when I tap into my inner narcissism (haha) and dive in anyway. I read this quote once that said, "your subconscious knows what go write, so get out of the way." When I don't know what to do, I just write anyway and believe that the answer will come when I need it. Amazingly, it works. ^_^

  16. I love that. "Blackbelt Panster." I'm a reformed panster myself, and outlining has cut down my writing time by more than 50%. It's not easy, but I feel like I still have the flexibility to go and change directions just fine.

  17. Welcome back - about time you got your lazy butt back in the saddle :oP

  18. Oh, you know...why not? :-)

    I'm with Jay - "Blackbelt Pantser" is Le Bomb and would make for a great band name.

  19. I usually base my characters on real people and when I need motivation for them I think what the real people would do and why. Seems easier to make up fake motivations for real people (gossip, really).

    Moody Writing

  20. Why is the toughest. If you don't have a good why, it's like, what's the point? But you'll find it. That's what writing is.

    It took me a week to outline my book, too. It's harder than it looks!

  21. Best part about writing you can hop back in whenever

  22. This WHY issue trips me up sometimes still to this day. It's the modus operandi of your characters that can really be tough to nail down. If you can figure it out, and stick with it (that's hard all by itself, lol), then you will have a terrifically focused story/plot/everything. Whoosh! Easy Street.

    Keep the question in the back of your mind and the answer might pop up out of nowhere one day, probably when you're in the shower and can't write it down anywhere at that moment. Be sure to stay away from the convenience of notepads, laptops, pens, regular paper, white paper napkins, etc. The proximity of these things kills creativity!

  23. I don't outline before writing. Hopefully there's something strong that I feel within the character that makes me want to write the story before I ever write it. But, being a pantser, the story changes, hopefully for the better, as I go along.

  24. Thanks for stopping by everyone, I'm doing my best to get back to you all, but you'll have to excuse my lack of speed in returning comments. Hope you all are well nonetheless!

  25. Seeing someone ask these questions before churning out a long novel is refreshing. I am sure it will make you final product that much more valuable. Keep up the good work Elise.

  26. I did an outline once and trashed it the first week. My characters just didn't want to conform. Maybe yours are feeling a bit confined and that's why they're not behaving.

  27. Hey Elise,

    You know what motivates your characters. Of course, in my case, no plots, no protagonists, but a character named Ann Tagonist who I'm working on. I firmly believe that there's no need for structure in writing. Besides, when I'm not sure about something, Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar helps me out :)

    Thank you for being part of "IWSG" aka "I Was Seeking Gary!"

    Um, Gary :)

  28. I'm a pantser too, and every time I've tried to outline, I've strayed away from it. Or, sometimes, I tore off in another direction and looped back around to shoot the entire outline in the behind! The why always surprises me as I write. Hopefully you'll find it when you start typing. Have a good weekend!

  29. That why is indeed a very important component. A compelling why for the characters pulls the reader into the story more, makes them care more, worry more, cheer more... they can put themselves into the roles of the characters. And it's very difficult constructing that compelling why. Challenges challenges. :)

  30. I like to outline, but to be honest my characters motivation is something I've figure out early.

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

  31. Motivation/character = my biggest fault!!!! I can world build. I can create emotion. I can make a scene come visually alive… but this post sums up my weakness. I'm RIGHT THERE WITH YOU, Elise. It's hard. There are so many things to master in this crazy writing world, and I totally feel you with this one!!!!

    And thank you. Thank you for your kindness today on my blog. Your words mean a lot. :)


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