You Chose…Poorly: Writing Real Character Motivations

That way goes home…but this way goes to a questionable life choice? Sign me up!

The world—and in this context, by ‘world’, I mean the part of it that gives writing advice—is full of articles discussing character motivations and choices. Why does your character do this and not that? Why did they press that button? Why did they fuck that guy? Why, why, why?

It’s a good question. As questions go, it’s one of my personal favourites.* But here’s my tweak: the reason your character has for doing stuff…it doesn’t have to be a good one. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better if it’s not a good one. And by ‘good’, I mean ‘the best possible choice in the circumstances.’

Why? I’m glad you asked.

Nothing is more boring that perfection.** And boring characters kill stories like the cold, heartless assassins they are. So fuck the main character who makes good choices. We want to see them make bad decisions. Not bad as in stupid; I fucking hate it when a character makes an illogical, pointless choice for no reason other than the plot demands that it be made. But making decisions based on faulty logic? On emotional turmoil? Or, my personal favourite, making a choice because some less-than-attractive aspect of their personality demands it? Oh yes. That’s the good stuff.

We want to see their pettiness, their insecurities, their damage. Because that’s how we know that they’re just like us.

If you try and tell me that every decision you’ve ever made has been the result of careful consideration and logic, you’re either a liar or an android sent to spy on us by an alien civilization. Also, I hate you. And you’re probably boring.

No one wants to read The Adventures of Someone Who Thought Very Carefully About Everything, because that person probably doesn’t have adventures. Or, if they do, they’re the result of outside forces impinging on that person’s meticulously ordered world, which is less interesting than someone who goes out and does stuff on their own. Even if it’s bad stuff. Especially if it’s bad stuff.

I want to see your characters fuck their ex even though they know, deep down, that it’s a bad idea. But they’re having a rough day and there are meticulously boring assassins everywhere and they don’t know who to trust. And, sure, maybe the ex is a deadbeat with daddy issues and a killer robot sidekick, but damn it, they’re cute. And they still have that smile. And it’s been a really, really, really hard day. ***

Show us that: the moment of weakness, the lapse in logic, the choices that are made for all the reasons that we shouldn’t make choices. But we do. Every damn day. And sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. It’s the same for characters. Just keep them away from perfection.

*Along with “I wonder what happens when I do this?”
**Anyone seen the Lego Movie? There’s a reason the Kragle was the tool of ultimate evil.
***I kind of want to write this now.

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9 thoughts on “You Chose…Poorly: Writing Real Character Motivations

  1. So, true! People are complicated and nobody really fits into the goody goody role. Sometimes we make good choices for bad, manipulative selfish reasons. Sometimes we make cruel choices (with harmful results) for what we believe to be good, noble reasons. And there’s a messy mix of everything in between. It’s really that messy mix of humanity that makes for good stories.

  2. Do it, in installments, in your site. I’ll read it. Just be sure to include lots of swears and sex scenes and I’m in, oh, and aliens. Love aliens.

  3. Such a good post. I hate reading stories about characters who have planned out every move they make, considering all ways that their plan could fail and accounting for each and every one. Without problems, the story is over before it begins.

    But to counter that, I hate it when characters constantly make bad choices in literature. In fact, I find this more unbearable. Especially when they have lots of resources and good fortune. How can you like someone who is constantly failing and is just that lucky? (I am looking right at you Daenerys Targaryan!)

    • Can’t comment on Daenerys (I stopped reading in the middle of book three and haven’t watched the show), but I can see that being irritating. The ‘I’m So Lucky There’s A Horseshoe Jammed Up My Ass’ schtick gets real old.

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