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Apr 8, 2009

Internal vs External Motivation

As I struggle with finding the
voice and
for my Secret Novel, I return each time to the characters themselves. Many of you have given me the advice, "Listen to what the characters tell you."

I pondered this wisdom deeply and realized something profound. I have no frickin' idea what my characters are telling me.

Here's the problem. I know the shape of my story well... but only from the outside. I know what happens to my characters. But I don't know what happens within my characters. I realize this is odd. Usually, I know what my characters want before I know what will stop them from getting it. For various reasons, mostly because my secret novel is inspired by real events, I know all the obstacles but none of the aspirations.

My characters have external motivation. Bad things happen to them. But what is their internal motivation? What keeps them going despite the bad things? This is what I have to discover.

I usually write characters from the inside out. This time I have to write them from the outside in.

UPDATE: Apparently, this is Vonnegut's Third Rule of Writing.


Sara Raasch said...

I ALWAYS have to do this. And I say it like that because sometimes it gets annoying, like my characters are purposefully making it difficult for me to discover what their internal motivation is. Discovering it usually takes a few days of silent reflection on the character and walking through that character's life -- "This happened to them, which resulted in them having this disposition toward that kind of people, so now with that disposition, they will respond like this..." It works, I swear ;)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

My characters don't usually withhold this information from me. Sometimes it's annoying when they DEMAND to speak to me in the middle of the night, but ya know, I'll take what I get. :)

Good luck! I'm sure you'll discover their motivations. You are early in the process.

The Screaming Guppy said...

Sounds like a challenge, but I think Lady Glamis is right. It's early still. If your characters are like mine, they'll be giving you orders in no time flat.

Davin Malasarn said...

Yes, good luck! It sounds like you're at least listening to them, so hopefully they'll tell you what you need to know soon!

Danyelle L. said...

*sympathy cookies*

Sometimes the only thing you can do is write and allow the characters to have a voice while you do so. Along the way, they'll fill you in.

Good luck to you. :)

scott g.f.bailey said...

You could always interview your characters. Keep asking them why they're doing what they do. Ask them questions unrelated to the story in the book and see what they say. Just keep nagging them until they're pissed off enough to set you straight. Works for some people.

lotusgirl said...

Sometimes I just put my characters in situations and make them figure a way out. By seeing what they do, I get to know them better. I usually end up with about a chapter doing that. (I may or may not use it in the book, but it has been useful.)

PurpleClover said...

See...your problem is that you think you can control your characters and give them some sort of personality. You may have an idea of what you want them to be but just start writing. They'll tell you who you are before you realize it.

My main character was going to be somewhat flawless but the more I wrote the more I realized he has a drinking problem. Hmph! That's interesting. I never knew until he was taking a flask with him everywhere. Weird.

It's like love...can't force it. Just let it happen.

Anonymous said...

I think you are already beginning to hear them. I like the interview them idea just to give them bones.

SunTiger said...

I experience the opposite when I write. I know what my characters feel and it seems redundant to write about it, as I expect my reader to know what I know -- but on review, my readers insist I must write what the characters think and feel otherwise they're "lifeless". . . so I go back to the drawing board.

SandyG said...

I am not sure all characters are created equal. Is there any kind of a hierarchy in your story? Are some characters driving the plot? Should some voices be louder than others? And what happens if you have characters that can't talk (e.g., Frog) - how do you listen to them?

Tara Maya said...

At this time, there are four POV characters of equal weight in the story. One is a child.

Annie Louden said...

Maybe it will take a long time of writing before you figure it out. I just finished the third draft of a novel, and I realized I still don't know what one of the main characters wants. I thought I knew, but the answer wasn't good enough.