As anyone who reads a newspaper already knows, human beings are capable of anything. Something motivates those people who collect Victorian underwear, leave eight million dollars to their cat, commit axe murders, risk their lives for strangers, or tap-dance the length of California. Injournalism, it's sufficient to let the subject himself answer the question, "Why did you do it?" Making the action itself credible isn't an issue; it happened. In fiction, however, it didn't happen (by definition), and not all actions will strike your reader as equally plausible. Therefore, it makes sense to consider character motivation not only in terms of the character himself (he's angry, he's in love, he wants to get even), but also in terms of the reader. Reader understanding is the key to creating credible motivation for your protagonist.
Looked at this way, there are two kinds of character motivation. Each dictates a different writing strategy.
First are motives that are easily understandable to the reader because she would feel the same way in a similar situation. You, the writer, don't have to work too hard at this kind of motivation. Readers will readily understand why a mother risks danger to save her baby, why a detective wants to solve a crime, why a woman who just lost her fiancé to her sister doesn't choose to attend their wedding. In such situations, all you need is a brief confirmation that the characters are what we expect, and we'll accept their actions. Show us briefly that the mother loves her baby, the detective is a conscientious guy, the jilted sister feels hurt. A paragraph or two will often do it.
The writer's task is much more complicated when motivation is counter to our expectations of the world. Some of the best stories have characters with motives that are more interesting— because less predictable—than the ones cited above. However, the less common the character's motive, and the more it violates our stereotypes, the more background information you'll have to supply to make us understand why this person is doing what he's doing.
Consider, for example, thatjilted sister. Suppose she doesn't refuse to attend the wedding. Suppose instead she actually seems pleased that her fiancé was starting to pay so much attention to her sister. Suppose she makes excuses to leave them alone together, praises them lavishly to each other, seems to want them to flirt and touch. Why might she do all that?
There are several possible reasons. Maybe she's come to realize that she made a mistake, this isn't the man for her, and she's hoping that if he falls for Sissy the whole awful situation can be resolved without anyone's getting hurt.
Or maybe her motive is more sinister: She needs to hold power over everybody around her, and being the ostensible victim in a love triangle based on guilt will give her plenty of secret power over both her sister and her husband.
Or maybe she's always felt a devastating inferiority to her sister. Now she helplessly believes there's no way she could ever compete with such a goddess as Sissy, so the best way to remain a part of both her fiance's and her sister's lives is to go along with their attraction for each other.
All these reactions are certainly possible to human nature. None, however, will be your reader's automatic assumption of how a jilted woman feels or behaves. Therefore, you will have to work much harder to make her motivation clear and credible. You might show us her private thoughts. You might let us hear her candidly discuss the situation with her friend, her dog, or her therapist. You might let us see her behave in similar fashion— with kindness, or with deviousness, or with low self-esteem—in other, unrelated situations. Probably you'll need to do all these things, because when an initial motivation is out of the ordinary, only a pattern of incidents in the middle of the story will convince us that it's genuine.
Beginning writers often have trouble with this. At the end of the story, when it turns out that it was Jane who first gave her daughter drugs, the amazed reader says, "Jane? Martha's own mother? Why would a mother do that?"
The writer answers, "Because she'sjealous that her daughter still has all her life ahead of her, while Jane's life is such a mess."
"But," the reader says, "you didn't ever say Jane was sojeal-ous of Martha!"
"Yes, I did," the writer answers indignantly, "right here on page sixty-eight!"
Unfortunately one mention on page sixty-eight isn't going to do it. A mother who supplies her daughter with drugs out of jealousy is so far out of most reader's expectations that to make this credible, you'd need an extensive pattern of incidents. You would have to show us Jane jealous of Martha's freedom to drop a boyfriend (much easier than dropping husband Sam); Jane reacting spitefully to Martha's getting a fun job (Jane hates her job); Jane showing willful negligence for other people (maybe she leaves a hit-and-run accident); Jane unable to control her own destructive impulses; Jane trying on Martha's clothes, wrapped in despair because they don't fit her aging body; Jane telling her best friend she never wanted to be a mother at all. After all that, we might believe Jane is capable of supplying Martha with drugs out ofjealousy. We won't like Jane, but we'll understand her.
This is one of fiction's major challenges: making readers understand a character's motives when those motives are not simple. The way you create such understanding is through patterns of incidents. No one occurrence will be enough. However, it's worth the effort, because complex motivations lead to unexpected actions, and such actions create interesting plots.
In a short story, of course, you don't have as much room to dramatize as many incidents. However, you still must show more than one motivating incident to make a character change believable. In "Fat," for instance, Carver includes three different sets of responses to the fat man: from the narrator's co-workers, from her husband, and from her friend, Rita. None of them understands what the narrator is trying to say. There is a pattern of incomprehension that causes the narrator to think she must change her life—all presented in six pages.
The shorter the piece of fiction, the more skillful you must be in your choice of incidents. That's why there are more good novelists than good short story writers.
What does all this mean in terms of planning the middle of your story? It means that when you list events to turn into scenes, you must include events that will make clear why your characters are doing what they're doing.
For instance, a common type of story conflict arises when a character wants two mutually exclusive things. This happens to all of us every day: We want to go to the Wednesday late-night party and be fresh for work the next day. We want to lose ten pounds and eat linzer torte. More seriously, we want justice for all but only if we don't have to personally give up anything to get it, freedom to do what we want but only if other people behave the way we think they should. "The problems ofthe human heart in conflict with itself—that alone can make good writing," said William Faulkner.
When your character wants two conflicting things, or acts out of two conflicting motives, you must develop both in the middle part of your story. This means including on your scene list incidents that will dramatize both. If, for instance, Jane is torn between her savagejealousy of Martha and her more maternal love, the jealousy scenes need to be balanced by scenes of Jane at least trying to express her concern for Martha. Both kinds of scenes will need to be strongly written if we're going to believe Jane's internal conflict.
In a short story, especially, these same scenes must do double duty: They must also advance the main plot. This means you need to give thought to choosing scenes in which your characters not only do something, but also do that something in a way that is revealing of their personalities. In a novel, most of the scenes will also meet these twin goals, although at novel length you have some room for purely characterizing flashbacks and digressions.
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