Saturday, December 06, 2008

characters and motivation

I got a rejection e-mail the other day from Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies for "Falling Knight." A couple of phrases stood out in his comments: "couldn't figure out enough . . . to know why he wanted to" and "made his motives seem hidden to me." I went back to the previous e-mail I'd received from Mr. Andrews (for "Blood Brother"), and found similar ideas: "never got a sense for what Augan's burning goal was" and "wasn't sure what stakes were hanging over his head." Granted, you can draw a straight line between any two points, but his concerns with these stories were consistent enough that before I sent off another one to him (I'd like to send "Maskèd Panama."), I figured it was worth the time to look at characterization and whether motivation came through clearly.

I also spent a lot of time with Bonnie in chat, discussing layers, character depth, and motivation. Then I dug into my shelves of writing books, and I'm rereading all the significant material I found there, beginning with Noah Lukeman's The Plot Thickens--specifically, chapters 2 and 3 ("Characterization: The Inner Life" and "Applied Characterization"). Lots of material to think about there.

I'll admit, though, that part of me was recalcitrant. I was thinking such things as, "Doesn't the fact that he does plot against his leader evidence that he is motivated to do so? Shouldn't we draw conclusions about his motivations from his actions?"

Then last night, waiting for the baby to fall asleep (around 1 a.m., finally), the husband and I were watching Parents on (Hulu link, IMDB link) And all became clear to me. If you want to watch this movie, be warned, there are spoilers below.

The plot revolves around a family of cannibals--the parents knowingly, the kid just suspecting the truth. But he starts the movie with this utter revulsion to the meat he's being served, with no apparent reason, and he's having nightmares, and he's afraid of his parents . . . and all of that makes sense *after* he discovers it's humans they're eating. But before that? Not so much.

I couldn't see any reason for him not to want to eat what he'd been eating his entire life.

I told the husband that it was amusing that what bugged me about the movie was that I couldn't understand why the kid wouldn't want to be a cannibal. The movie needed a precipitating incident--even if it wasn't clearly shown to the audience so the audience might think the kid was imagining things, with the truth only slowly dawning. Otherwise, the kid's actions make no sense in context.

Which is when I realized that action alone is not sufficient to show motivation.

So now I need to practice actually showing the character motivation. It's not easy. I mean, I could tell the readers, "Oh, Michael is plotting in 'Falling Knight' because he blames his boss for his brother's death." I know that's his rationale. I thought I'd put it in the story. Mr. Andrews didn't think it that clear, however, so it won't hurt me to go back and take another look at it before I send it to another market.

As for the next story I'd like to send him? Yes, it needs another edit pass. Motivation could be sharpened, but there's also a horribly unresolved character arc and a flagrant violation of Sanderson's First Law. But those are things I know how to fix, now that I've seen they are there.

By the way, if you haven't submitted anything yet to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I highly recommend that you do. He's looking for secondary world fantasy up to 10k, and he gives excellent feedback with his rejections. And read them, too. Excellent stuff!

(cross-posted to my LJ)


diane said...

Interesting post. I'm facing a daunting revision task right now, and I know that the weakness in my plot is mostly a weakness in character motivation. I want to forget it and go to another project, but I'm afraid that if I do, I'll never come back and fix the current draft. I'm going to bring up this issue of character motivation on my own blog, with links over here.
(Also interesting in that I have a story out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies right now.)

shariwrites said...

Hi,I found you through a link on diane's blog. Anyway, I've had this similar problem with my writing. I've had a great beta reader who is always pointing out that she "doesn't buy it", or something similar. She's suggesteed multiple times that I "show" the characters' motivations and feelings by going into their head more so that we really know what they're thinking and feeling, instead of just watching them go through the actions without any really clear motivation. It has really made some of the scenes, and some new ones I've had to add, much better.

Ken Kiser said...

Great post. I'm glad my fellow writers steered me toward you. I've B'rolled you so I can get back here easily.

Keep fighting the good fight and don't EVER give up.

E. Hartshorn said...

@diane: Thanks for posting the link on your blog! Good luck with your revision. Remember--whatever you learn on this revision will help you with the next project, too.

@shariwrites: Thank goodness for beta readers who improve the work. Better is always good. I see from your blog that you recently received a partial request. Good luck with that!

@Ken Kiser: Thanks for the encouraging words. Your blog of your journey toward publication looks fascinating. I'll have to check it out in more detail.