Death Wish motivation

By Joe Moore

How often do you watch a movie with the sound turned off? Not too often, I’ll bet. Not only would you be missing a key sensory ingredient of the story, but you would have to guess at what is motivating the characters actions. Without the sound or dialogue, motivation is vague, ambiguous, and downright impossible to determine. And without motivation, there’s little or no story to enjoy.

Motivation directs a character’s actions and reactions. When someone reads a book, they rarely go digging for motivation, but they know when it’s missing, or worse, when it’s present but farfetched or forced. For instance, motivation becomes unbelievable when it’s cliché such as the old, worn out white hat-black hat characterization. The bad guy must be bad because his appearance is that of a stereotypical villain.

Another stumbling point is when the protagonist’s actions go beyond the realm of reality to the point of stopping the reader cold. The motivation didn’t provide the justification on why a character acts in a certain manner. This is critical when a character, especially the hero, deliberately risks his own life. If the motivation hasn’t been sold to the readers in a convincing manner prior to the protagonist taking a dangerous risk, they won’t buy into the scene and will consider it manufactured. That’s where they stop reading and put the book down.

A character’s motivation can be an obvious goal that must be achieved in order for survival or it can be a series of ever-building events that propel her forward into an inevitable conflict. It’s the writer’s job to develop motivation to a point that the reader won’t question the character’s actions, especially by the time they reach the climax of the book.

First, let’s talk about external motivation: incidental versus major.

Incidental motivators are the events that occur in and around the character at the scene or setting level of the story. He’s late for work. She’s annoyed by the neighbor’s barking dog. He spills his coffee on his business report. She has an argument with her mother. He gets cut off in traffic. She loses her earring. In and of themselves, these incidental events don’t motivate the hero to run into a burning building to save a stranger or the heroine to spend years tracking down the murderer of her child. But they all add up—or at least they should. They are the bricks and cement of character-building that must augment and support the grand motivation that kicks off the story—the major motivation.

Major motivation is the biggie. A great example is the Death Wish scenario—the classic 1974 Charles Bronson movie. An ordinary guy becomes a one-man vigilante deathwishsquad after he witnesses his wife murdered by hoodlums. The major motivation—the brutal crime and ensuing obsession for vengeance—shapes and forces the character into taking action outside his comfort zone. And because he’s such a “Mr. Everyman”, the reader will probably consider what he or she would do in the same situation. The protagonist gets sympathy and support from the reader even though he’s committing acts of violence just as extreme as the original major motivation.

Another factor in believable character motivation is matching the actions of the protagonist with his personality—an internal motivation. A 95-pound, soft-spoken computer geek shouldn’t try to physically take on the 330-pound former linebacker henchman in a fist fight. But he can use his fine-tuned intellect and problem solving abilities to bring down the bad guy in the arena of the brain, not brawn. The actions of the character fueled by motivation must be consistent with his personality. This is not to say that an ordinary guy can’t take on an extraordinary situation and win, only that it must be consistent with his makeup and therefore believable in the mind of the reader.

There’s also the internal issue of motivational growth. The protagonist should grow or change in some manner over the course of the story. And this growth must be the result of internal forces in opposition. For example, greed and generosity, anger and patience, or caution and boldness. The protagonist is a highly cautious individual and shows it while reacting to a number of incidental events. But when the major event comes along—perhaps a direct threat to his family’s safety—he steps forward to become a bold defender of what he treasures most.

When dealing with motivation, we can’t forget that the antagonist needs his share, too. It’s a given that conflict and tension are what keeps a reader turning pages. So not only does the protagonist need the appropriate amount of convincing motivation to be propelled through the story, but the antagonist must meet the challenge with an equal amount of motivation to push back. It’s not good enough to say that the bad guy is insane or wants to rule the world. There has to be motivation that is undeniable in the mind of the reader.

Finally, to create strong, believable motivation for your characters, remember to always ask yourself, How would I react in a similar situation?

THE BLADE, coming in February from Sholes & Moore
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12 thoughts on “Death Wish motivation

  1. Good stuff as usual, Joe. I would echo what you say about the opposition character. If he’s a “bad guy,” then he thinks he’s justified in what he’s doing. Koontz advocates even a little sympathy in his backstory. That creates these emotional currents in the reader that aren’t analyzed, just felt. And the book becomes more memorable because of it.

    • I agree with Koontz, James. A one-dimensional villain is a fatal flaw because crime fiction readers have come to expect better. My main criterion: He has to be a worthy adversary for the protag.

  2. All good points, Joe. Either my critique group or my editor will catch me if my character is behaving in an inappropriate manner. Usually I have to either strengthen the motivation or change his actions.

  3. Good analysis, Joe. I’ve become a fan of the show What Would You Do?, where they put bystanders into staged situations to see whether or not they react, and then gets their explanations. The people who intervene are invariably driven by a need to prevent injustice or cruelty. I like that the show delves into motivation, as well as simply showing action.

  4. Hear hear. I think a motivation defines a character more than background, appearance, or any one other thing. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”

  5. James makes a good point (as always) I’m ok with my protagonist most of the time, but I have to remember to get into the head of my “bad guy” and remember that he/she has thoughts, motivations, and desires that make 100% sense to them and they have to act and react true to their nature and thought school too. If not you get really cliche bad guys.

  6. I would have read more on this Joe! Getting inside the heads of characters is what distinguishes “eh” crime fiction from “wow” stuff. And the more layers you can plumb the better.

  7. Good additional thoughts, Jim. I don’t envy the writers of TV shows like Criminal Minds and CSI who have to build a believable new villain every week that has enough motivation for the viewer to keep watching. At least with a novel, we’ve got 100k pages to sell our case.

    Nancy, that’s the value of a supportive critique group. I recommend everyone find a group, either local or online that they can turn to.

    Kathryn, that show sounds like a great study in character building.

    Vonnegut was a smart guy, Sechin. His 8 rules for writing should be memorized by all.

    You’re right, Chaco. You and the reader must enter the antagonist’s mind, sometimes even more so that the hero. Without motivation, we create a cartoon.

    Plumb away, Kris. It pays off in the end.

    That’s a great sign of progress, Ron. The antagonist must be as well rounded a character as the hero.

  8. Good info Joe. I am actually working through something like this in my current WIP. While I think I’m building the motivation plenty well for the protagonists I have yet to come up with a single antagonist to build up. In the past this wasn’t an issue, as there were a small number of identifiable antags.

    But this is a war story about an invasion in force. Therefore the antagonist is an entire army of tens of thousands, I’m finding it hard to paint a sympathetic feeling for an entire army that acts like communist armies have in the past century (IE slaughtering in toto their opponents). I guess I need to delve into the bad guy’s side more deeply and pull out a commander and/or a ranking sergeant in the bad guy’s units and single him or her out to be the primary baddie.

  9. Basil, having an army as the protag is a bit tough. Even the Nazis had some guys that could have been considered less than evil. I think you need to consider zeroing in on a single individual to exemplify the source of the evil or bad stuff. The reader needs to know who is standing in the way of the protag.

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