Three Clear Believable Motivation

The hero and the villain must have obvious objectives and goals: the winning of love or wealth, the preservation of life, etc. Of course, motivation is also essential in mainstream fiction, but it is often deep psychological motivation which the reader only sees through a distorted lens and must fathom for himself. Category fiction must never leave the reader in doubt about a character's motivations. Good characterization is a requirement, but the story is not to be sacrificed for the sake of a character study that runs for pages at a time.

Any set of character motivations, when examined, fits into one of seven slots: love, curiosity, self-preservation, greed, self-discovery, duty, revenge. Before going on to the fourth requirement of genre fiction, let's take a look at the uses and pitfalls of each of these motivations.

Love. Such a universal emotion is adaptable to any genre, though a writer must be careful not to let cliché situations lead him into unbelievable character conflicts. For instance, it is generally too much to accept that a hero would die for love. Orwell's 1984 is good for a point here. Though Winston loves Julia, he is prey to the "thought police" in their campaign to make him deny her. They find his own weakness: rats. When Winston is faced with being bitten by starving rodents, he shouts, "Do it to her!" They have broken him. A hero might risk his life and sanity for love, but only with a high chance for success; otherwise, the risk seems foolhardy.

Love is a primary motivation in my own novel Dark of the Woods (science fiction); in Gerald A. Browne's best-selling 11 Harrowhouse (suspense); in Brian Garfield's Gun Down (Western); in Dance with the Devil by Deanna Dwyer (Gothic.)

Curiosity. Curiosity is often used as a character motivation in the mystery story, science fiction, fantasy, and the Gothic romance. We humans are curious creatures. Without curiosity, we might still be sitting in caves, scratching our fleas and eating raw meat. Curiosity is responsible for every discovery since man tamed fire, yet, as with love, it is not motive enough to sustain a character for a full novel. There is a point at which—after he has been beaten and threatened enough—a realistic character motivated only by curiosity will call it quits. In that case, the next source of motivation nicely complements curiosity.

Self-preservation. When we nose into affairs meant to be kept secret, we court emotional and physical disaster. A genre novel hero courts it more than most. His curiosity often propels him into a fight for his life, usually against the corrupt forces toward whom his inquisitiveness was first directed. A warning: Don't force your character to endure such extended peaks of punishment that the reader's suspension of disbelief is destroyed. In real life, a man will only endure so much pain and exhaustion before surrendering. If you must, for excitement, put your protagonist to horrendous affliction, give him a goal to supplement self-preservation and thereby add believability to his stamina. If his life and the life of the woman he loves depends on his staying one step ahead of the enemy, you'll have more leeway in making him surmount the largest obstacles.

Greed. This is usually not a hero's motivation, though it can be if—as in the suspense novels of Dan Marlowe and Donald E. Westlake—the hero is a bandit. It is excellent motivation for antagonists if it is supplemented with other motives to keep it from seeming cartoon-like.

Self-discovery. This is an acceptable motivation for a category hero, though the writer must not get bogged down in long paragraphs of character analysis and lose the storyline in the process. The hero should only uncover truths about himself through his reaction to plot developments, not through any


long, detailed soul-searching.

Duty. In Shakespeare's day, duty was a valid motive for a writer's characters but is now dated. The masses no longer blindly give their loyalty to king and state. It is not sufficient, for example, to establish that your detective or secret agent is investigating the case because it is his job. The reader finds little empathy or escape in the exploits of a man just doing his job. Your protagonist must have a reason for his actions aside from the fact he's paid for them. Why is he a spy or detective? What is there about him that makes him want to do these things, what need is satisfied? Therein lies your real motivation.

Revenge. This was also a Shakespearean tool—Hamlet was motivated by revenge—but is also dated. In Shakespeare's time, it was often necessary that a family revenge the murder of one of its own because little organized authority existed to handle such things. A novel set in the last sixty years, however, will deal with a social background in which society's revenge has replaced the family's revenge. Most people are content to allow established police and judicial systems to take care of their own revenge. If this is your motivation for a present-day hero, he must be one of three things: (1) mentally or emotionally unstable and blinded to rational procedure, (2) seeking revenge for some matter that does not fall under the jurisdiction of elected authority, (3) a member of a racial or occupational or religious minority who cannot expect justice at the hands of the regular officials. Aside from the Western (set temporally and geographically in a place where law and order were not reliable) or historical novel, revenge must be used only as a prop to more acceptable motives.

Of course, in almost every story, a combination of two or more of these motivations is necessary to produce a well-rounded hero and a well-rounded villain. In a Gothic, for example, the heroine is likely to be motivated by curiosity, love, and self-preservation, as in A Darker Heritage by Gerda Ann Cerra or Shadow of the Lynx, the best-selling Gothic by Victoria Holt, or in Anne McCaffrey's excellent The Mark of Merlin.

Thus far, we've listed the kinds of motivation you have to choose from, but how do you decide which motivations best fit your characters and story? There is only one rule of thumb: no character should be motivated by something which is at odds with his basic personality. For example, your hero, if he were to be admirable, could hardly be motivated by an insatiable greed for power and wealth. And your antagonist, if he is to be a fearsome character, should not be motivated by great, enduring love for the heroine.

Okay. A strong plot, hero, and believable motivation have been covered; only two more qualities are essential to the success of the category novel.

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