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
"An epic thriller." – Douglas Preston
"An absolute thrill ride." – Lisa Gardner
”Full-throttle thriller writing.” – David Morrell
"Another razor-sharp thriller from one of my favorite writing teams." – Brad Thor
"History and suspense entangle from page one." – Steve Berry

If it bleeds, it leads

Hosted by Joe Moore

Today I’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Julie Kramer. Julie is an internationally published and award-winning crime author, and one of my favorite writers. Her latest thriller, SHUNNING SARAH (Library Journal starred review) was released yesterday and I hope you’ll grab a copy. Enjoy!

My fifth media thriller, SHUNNING SARAH, is out this week and I’m starting to think julie_pressmaking my heroine a TV reporter might not have been such a good idea. One of the general rules of novel writing is that your protagonist should be “likeable.”

But just the other day a Gallup poll said the public’s trust in TV news is at an all-time low, almost as low as Congress. I can understand those stats. After all, two networks, in their zeal to be first, recently flubbed coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on government-mandated health care. Another network took liberties editing audio of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida.

Used to be, journalists were the good guys. America cheered TV shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Lou Grant, and Murphy Brown. And don’t forget, Superman’s day job was as a reporter for the Daily Planet. And Spiderman took pictures for his local newspaper. In Network, Howard Beale became a provocative folk hero for railing “I’m mad as hell and won’t take it any more.” And in real life, Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists, including me.

The tabloidization of mainstream media and the narrowing of the line between news and gossip have damaged the credibility newsrooms once took for granted. Are we heading back to the sensational days of yellow journalism? My heroine, Riley Spartz, sure hopes not.

kramer-sidebar3I hear from readers who continue to appreciate her as a character because she reflects the problems plaguing newsrooms across America. Her voice is cynical, yet principled as she chases ratings and villains.

I know from a career in the television news business that words can be weapons. Satire and deadpan humor help Riley cope as news budgets are cut and bosses demand 24-7 coverage. Readers tell me they don’t watch news the same way after reading my books. It’s like sausage and laws. You don’t want to watch how they’re made. And my former news colleagues sometimes wish I wasn’t quite so candid.

“Did you have to tell them ‘if it bleeds it leads?’” they ask.

But it’s important for my writing to accurately reflect the state of the news business, good and bad. Because I love news. I’m addicted to knowing who, what, when, where and why. And I honestly believe a free, objective press is one of the best things our society has going. I like it when reviewers praise my depiction of behind-the-scenes action in the newsroom – warts and all.

But what I really need is for the new HBO series, The Newsroom, to take off big and get viewers rooting for TV news again. Then maybe I could sell film rights, and Riley could make it to the big screen.

How big a role does a character’s profession play in what you write or read? And if you simply need to rant about the media, I won’t take offense. 

Investigative television journalist Julie Kramer writes a series of thrillers: STALKING SUSAN, MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, KILLING KATE and SHUNNING SARAH—set in the desperate world of TV news. Julie won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Mystery as well as the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, and RT Best Best Amateur Sleuth Awards. She formerly ran the I TEAM for WCCO-TV before becoming a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS. Visit her website at

Building a better robot

By Joe Moore

Along with plot, setting, dialog, theme, and premise, your story is made up of characters. Hopefully, they’re interesting and believable. If they’re not, here are a few tips on making them so.

It’s important to think of your characters as having a life prior to the story starting, and unless you kill them off, also having a life beyond the last page. You need to know your character’s history. This doesn’t mean you have to explain every detail to the reader, but as the author, you must know it. Humans are creatures molded by our past lives. There’s no difference with your fictional characters. The more you know about them, the more you’ll know how they will react under different circumstances and levels of pressure.

robots The reader doesn’t need to know everyone’s resume and pedigree, but those things that happened to a character prior to the start of the story will help justify their actions and reactions. For instance, a child who fell down a mine shaft and remained in the darkness of that terrible place for days until rescued could, as an adult, harbor a deep fear of cramped dark places when it comes time to escape from one in your story. Why does Indiana Jones stare down into the ancient ruins and hesitate to proceed when he says, “I hate snakes.” We know because he had a frightening encounter with snakes as a youth. But the background info must be dished out to the reader in small doses in order to avoid the dreaded “info dump”. Keep the reader on a need-to-know basis.

Next, realize that your characters drive your plot. If a particular character was taken out of the story, how would the plot change? Does a character add conflict? Conflict is the fuel of the story. Without it, the fire goes out.

Also remember to allow the reader to do a lot of the heavy lifting by building the characters in their mind. Give just enough information to let them form a picture that’s consistent with your intentions. The character they build in their imagination will be much stronger that the one you tried to over-explain. Telling the reader how to think dilutes your story and its strength. Don’t explain a character’s motives or feelings. Let the reader come to their own conclusion based upon the character’s actions and reactions.

Avoid characters of convenience or messengers. By that I mean, don’t bring a character on stage purely to give out information. Make your characters earn their keep by taking part in the story, not just telling the story.

Challenge your characters. Push them just beyond their preset boundaries. Make them question their beliefs and judgment. There’s no place for warm and cozy in a compelling story. Never let them get in a comfort zone. Always keep it just out of their reach.

And finally, make your characters interesting. Place contradictions in their lives that show two sides to their personality such as a philosophy professor that loves soap operas or a minister with a secret gambling addiction. Turn them into multi-faceted human beings in whom the reader can relate. Without strong characters, a great plots fall flat.

So what has this all got to do with building a better robot? Even if you write science fiction or fantasy and your characters are robots or trolls, the memorable ones are those with strong human traits. Think r2d2 and C-3PO.

The secret to writing a thriller

By Joe Moore

In a recent writer’s forum, the question was asked: What is the most important element in a story? Plot, character development, pacing, voice, etc. Of course, they’re all important. But in my opinion, there’s one element that will always get an agent or editor’s attention in a query letter. It’s the one thing that that must be in your book to make the story work? I think it’s the secret to writing a page-turning thriller.


Conflict deals with how your characters must act and react to reach their goals.

It’s the key ingredient that turns a stranger into a fan or causes an agent to request your full manuscript or an editor to drop everything and read your submission: a clear understanding and statement of conflict.

Is your hero in a race against the clock to solve the puzzle and find the treasure before all hell breaks loose? Is your heroine on the run to prove her innocence before the police track her down? That’s the plot. But what makes it interesting and compelling is what stands in their way. What’s tripping them up, causing them to falter or doubt or take a detour?


Conflict makes a thriller more thrilling. It’s the single element that keeps readers up at night. It forces the reader to continue to ask, “How is he going to get out of this one?”

There are two kinds of conflict—external and internal.

External Conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force. The external conflict can be from another character or even a force of nature such as battling the elements—a hurricane or the extreme cold of the Arctic. External conflict usually takes place between the hero and another person or nature, or both.

Internal conflict is a struggle taking place in the hero’s mind. Mental conflict can be much more devastating that external because your character usually has to decide between right and wrong or between life and death. Internal conflict is the hero battling against himself.

Conflict causes the excitement to build to a climax, and the climax is the turning point of the story leading to a resolution. Without conflict, a story lacks life, energy and drive.

How do you approach conflict? Do you insert it into each scene? Do you use internal or external, or a combination of both? Have you ever read a story that didn’t have conflict? Was it worth reading?

New Characters Wanted

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Jane Austen was a vampire…Pride & Prejudice meets Zombies or Predator…

What next – Charles Dickens as a serial killer? Charlotte Bronte as a transgender PI? I’ve had enough of people ripping off famous authors, famous characters and famous historical figures. Create your own bloody characters I say!

Inspired by yesterday’s blog post on creating powerful characters that jump off the page I simply had to vent today (yes, it’s my Monday rant!) about the use of what I call gimmicks rather than characters. I know that in today’s commercial environment, the publishing industry (just as the movie industry) wants name recognition but really…WTF???

In Australia we used to have a segment called ‘what cheeses me off’ – and here’s mine for today – a list if you will of character gimmicks that drive me nuts.

  1. The rehash of past literary detectives – enough with Sherlock Holmes already! The only one who has pulled this off (in my mind) is Laurie R King and she created her own terrific character in Mary Russell on top of pulling off the aged beekeeping Holmes with aplomb…but for everyone else – enough!
  2. The ‘other perspective’ gimmick – Does the world really need Mr Knightly’s diary? What next – Uriah Heep’s peeping tom memoirs? Confessions of a rake by Mr Willoughby?
  3. The never ending sequel – Once a classic is done, it’s done as far as I’m concerned – so I don’t need to read Mr. Darcy’s Daughters or Pemberley the sequel (the latter was particularly bizarre I felt, though I confess I did read it!). The only ‘sequel’ I appreciated was the two books written by Jill Paton Walsh based on Dorothy L. Sayers unfinished notes.
  4. Real life historical figures as sleuths….I’m just not buying the King/Queen who can sneak out of court and go sleuthing…

Now don’t get me wrong, some people have managed to pull off these things and more power to them if their book sells. Jasper Fforde has a hilarious series featuring Thursday Next that spoofs all sorts of literary figures (I particularly loved the therapy session for the cast of Wuthering Heights in which Healthcliff [now a porn star known as the Black Stallion] arrives and then the session is disturbed by a bomb thrown by the pro-Catherine faction) – but unless you can achieve that level of sublime satire, I say, leave well alone.

In this environment, however, everyone seems to want the easy fix – the ‘hook’ that will draw in the sales without having to do the hard work of creating new ‘jump off the page’ characters. Call me old fashioned but the classics of tomorrow are not going to be reheated leftovers from previous classics – or are they? I sometimes wonder and despair…

So what ‘cheeses’ you off when it comes to rehashed characters…any others to add to my list?

As a writer, do your characters invade your “real life”?

“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”

That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post, Too close for comfort.

I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.

All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?

In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).

But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.

So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?

But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.

It can be way too hazardous to your health.