Good Characters—Day 5

There’s probably a lot more territory I could cover on this subject, but I’m going to end this mini-series with one last element I think is essential if a character is going to grab a hold of me early on and not let go.

Clear, understandable motivation. Poor motivation can derail the reading experience in so many ways.

Sometimes, when there is no clear story reason for a character doing or saying what he does or says, the hand of the author becomes all too apparent. Character A goes to place X simply because the author now wants him in place X. Nothing in the story requires this change, but the author intrusively makes the character do this unmotivated action, yanking the reader away from the belief that the character has wants and wishes, desires and dreams.

Or, if the character does something with weak motivation, he might appear stupid or foolish. Why would he fall for the same lie from the same evil woman after the first nine times he ended up in dire peril? It makes him look too gullible, too weak to cheer for.

(I’ve often thought that about Samson, to be honest. I mean, how many times did Delilah have to bring the Philistines around before he figured out that he couldn’t trust this woman? In all fairness to the man, I now wonder if he actually knew they were there, or if instead she called out and said they were there, but they escaped as soon as he flexed, because they realized he was still strong.)

Think Frodo for clear motivation. He first wants to dump the dangerous ring with someone far wiser than himself. Then when he learns of its power and danger, he accepts the assignment to destroy it—for the sake of the Shire and the peaceful way of life he now realizes he loves, for the people of the Shire, for the world of elves and dwarves, too.

Here we have a marriage of clear motivation with self-sacrifice. Frodo, of course, is also independent—a Hobbit after Uncle Bilbo’s own heart. He is also strong but vulnerable, as are all the Hobbits. He’s certainly complex, definitely takes action, and is self aware, more than Sam realizes in those last days.

Yep, I think Frodo is a pretty good character—engaging and memorable. I wouldn’t mind having him in my books.

OK, he’s been taken. One like him, then. 😉

Published in: on October 20, 2006 at 1:05 pm  Comments (5)  


  1. Becky, are you talking Main Character?


  2. Mostly I was thinking of main character, Chris, but when it comes to character motivation, every chraracter has to have a believable reason for what they do. But this is a point I disagree with a lot of writers on—the believable reason for the antagonist does not have to be seen from his point of view, I don’t thing. That makes him sympathetic and weakens the reader’s identification with the protagonist. However, all characters should only do what they have rationale to do. If character A goes to place X without a valid reason and ends up saving our protagonist’s life, what does that look like? Author intrusion. Co-incidence that shouts, “Set up.”

    But if character A goes to place X because he is an avid rock hound and has been looking forward for months to a trip to the desert with his rock-hound buddies, then his being in the right place to save our protagonist is completely believable.

    Part of providing motivation, then, even for minor characters, is foreshadowing.



  3. I’m becoming devil’s advocate! I don’t mean to, you know, but…

    I think it depends on the story and which character. Take Snape from Harry Potter–he could be a good guy at the end, we don’t know yet, but we have no idea why he hates Potter other than Potter’s father. It still doesn’t make sense why he would hate this kid so much, at least in my mind.

    Cetainly with Aragorn (since we’re talking about Bilbo and Frodo) doesn’t have a clear motivation until later on in the books. A little mystery is good for some characters.

    Main characters, though, I agree with you. As a reader I need to be on their side from the get go. Looks like I’m going to have a problem with my own WIP.



  4. Hey, Chris, that’s usually my role, so I’d better be able to have a little something thrown back at me. 😉 I don’t mind in the least. Good questions like this force me to think.

    And your point is well taken. There are some characters who need to remain mysterious, who we come to understand only over time. In those cases, however, I think the motive shifts up. I mean, in studying character development, I’ve read a number of writers who talk about our CORE–maybe subconscious desires, maybe life-centering beliefs. Above those, however, is a layer of hopes, dreams, desires, fears that we are aware of.

    So in Snape’s case, we know he hates Harry, which would give him the motive to do much of what he does. We also learn he has higher principles, which is why he ends up saving him instead of letting him fall into enemy hands.

    As to WHY he hates, Harry, however, that is something that is unfolding over time.

    I’m so glad you asked this question. I think having complex characters like Snape in secondary roles enriches the stories—something I’d like to do in my writing.

    Aragorn is much the same way. My first time through Fellowship half the time I didn’t trust Strider. Didn’t know if he had ulterior motives. Ah, motives again. So definitely keeping a character’s motives hidden can create suspense.

    But, doesn’t there have to be a consistency if not a foreshadowing? I mean, I have a character who does a surprising something, but I take pains to plant the idea that this is going to happen.

    If Aragorn had proved himself good, then acted against Frodo, I wouldn’t have believed it. Boromir, however, was set up to turn against him. Not that I expected it, but I understood it.

    Good discussion!




  5. Just checking the latest in your blog

    In Jesus,
    Maria in the UK


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