Using Motivation To Shape Your Plot by Laurie Schnebly
You already know that, no matter what kind of plot you’re building, it’s gotta be motivated by your characters in order to feel plausible. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing an emotional plot or an action plot or both — what makes it work is the characters.
So what IS it that makes your characters do what they do? Or another way of asking that is, what makes anybody do what they do?
There are all kinds of theories of motivation, and they all boil down to the same thing.
We want to be Okay.
Whatever it takes to be okay, that’s what motivates us.
Maslow talked about that, saying that to be Okay we first need Food and Water…yep, fine…Shelter…got it…then Safety…and in most books that don’t involve a zombie apocalypse, those issues are pretty well taken care of.
So we get into the next level of what people need to be Okay, which is Belonging / Acceptance / Love. Then there’s Respect of Others and Self-Respect, and finally there’s the drive to Be All You Can Be. Everywhere along that continuum, you’ve got some great motivators.
And that matters, because it’s the motivation that makes a character interesting.
Where does it come into the story?
Some writers start with the motivation: “let’s see, a woman who’s motivated by the desire for adventure would be THIS type of person.” Other writers start with the character: “my heroine wants to fly to Saturn, so that must mean she’s motivated by adventure.”
Either way works fine. And either way leaves you totally free to write any kind of story you want.
Say, given this heroine who wants to fly to Saturn in search of adventure, could your story be full of quirky humor? Absolutely. Dizzying suspense? Yep. Soul-deep emotion? Yep. Dazzling fantasy? Yep. Spine-tingling terror? Yep.
So in that case, why does the heroine’s motivation even matter?
Because it’s what makes her credible. Same as we can’t have dinosaurs showing up in some medieval cathedral without sacrificing a bit of credibility, neither can we have this woman flying off to Saturn without SOME plausible motivation.
And that’s where it’s easy for us authors to fall down on the job. We love this heroine who’s plotting her coordinates, we love that she’s going to Saturn, and we know that on the way she’ll meet this incredibly witty mechanic, and there’ll be a cyborg attack — oh, and the cyborgs will have a tone-deaf cook named Claude! — it’s all taking shape. We KNOW it’ll work, because we can SEE this story.
But there’s a down-side…
Thing is, it’s that wonderful dazzling clarity which can get us into trouble. Because our readers weren’t IN on this first glorious flash of inspiration. They can’t see that wonderful vision. All they see is a heroine charting her coordinates for a trip to Saturn, and they have no idea why she’s doing it.
Unless the readers GET her desire for adventure, they’re gonna feel out of the loop. They might not know why the story isn’t working for them, but they’re missing her motivation.
And motivation is what makes a book memorable.
For some writers, it comes so naturally that they never even question how their characters’ motivation will feed into the plot. (Which sometimes leaves them at loose ends, wondering what they heck can HAPPEN in this plot.)
For others, it’s more of a tack-on because their strength is in plotting. (Which sometimes leaves them wondering how to explain WHY this character did something that seems senseless but is actually integral to the plot.)
That leads to our prize-drawing question:
Which comes more easily for you, building a character or building a plot? How do you know?
There’s no Right Answer or Wrong Answer. (Although if you say “both come so easily that I write fabulous bestsellers in six days,” I’ll be horribly envious.)
I’d love to hear which you find easier, and somebody who posts will win free registration to my Plotting Via Motivation class coming up at WriterUniv.com next month. Which quite a few FF&P folks have already taken, so you might run into a friend or two in that group!
Laurie, who’ll start the ball rolling by saying I find character-building easier because I like personality stuff
BIO: Laurie Schnebly Campbell (BookLaurie.com) uses motivation to write happy endings for her own books — including one that beat out Nora Roberts for “Best Special Edition of the Year.” The only thing she loves more than writing is working with other writers, which is why she now has a dozen novels on her bookshelf with acknowledgments from authors who love her WriterUniv.com class!