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.com. (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)