Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

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