Character Motivation Redux

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

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.

0