Character Motivation Redux

By John Gilstrap

The writing process fascinates me. Reading Joe Moore’s excellent post about the Nemo family got me to thinking how I would answer the question about motivating characters. Even as I write this, I’m still not sure. Fact is, I’ve never thought of the process that way. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. As I’ve posted before in this space, my characters have the annoying habit of staring back at me until I tell them what to do.

For me, I think, plot is character is motivation is drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their separate component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem for me.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.


5 thoughts on “Character Motivation Redux

  1. Great comment, comparing writing to method acting. I’m a careful plotter–maybe too careful–but when my characters are rolling, especially in back and forth dialog, I’m speaking the parts aloud, trying to keep up as I type. Even in re-write, the best work comes from losing myself in the character, down to beats, where I’ll often write down what I just did as I was reading a character’s comment. (Shrug, gesture toward myself, jiggle a foot, whatever.

  2. Good additional comments on character development, John. My co-writer and I were on a SleuthFest collaboration panel a few years back. The moderator ask us who made most of the decisions regarding our writing. My answer was, our characters do.

    We’ve had a number of instances where we tried to push or force a character to do something they didn’t want to do. We either let them have their way, or we kill them off. 🙂

  3. Very good point. The stories I write seldom have real outlines other than a general direction to run. The characters take on their own life as I watch the words roll across the computer screen and the story unfolds as if it were ocurring before my eyes.

    I am also an occasional actor who does monologue shows for young people in a church setting. I have found that I act better when I do it like I write. A general knowledge of the story and let it happen on the stage, unscripted and untethered.

    While waiting to snag that longed for “big sale” for my books I found an outlet for both of my passions by podcasting the audio version of the stories. That is incredibly fun, and helps hone the text by acting it out.

    In short: Acting and writing are definitely the same thing for me.

  4. I’ve been wanting to take acting lessons because I hear that writers and actors go through simililar processes to get “into character.” I used to be way too shy to try acting, but now I feel I’d be up to a workshop, and could really learn something. Good post!

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