“We never fully understand other people’s motivations in real life,” says Orson Scott Card. “In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motivations with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons why people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.”

The question is, do you understand why your characters do the things they do? And are you conveying that understanding to the reader in an interesting way?

Character Motivation

Photo by Marco Bellucci

I recently edited an action thriller about a jaded assassin who is put into a situation where her choice will decide the fate of the world. Throughout the novel the reader asks, is this character good or bad? Is she a monster? Or does she have justification for killing?

One scene, in the middle of the novel, answers it all for us: a flashback to her childhood. This scene most perfectly delves into her motivation. However, the author skimmed over it. It was two or three pages long. It felt rushed, like the author didn’t know how important it was. In no uncertain terms, this scene was the center of the novel. We finally got answers to what made our character do what she did. But the author missed it.

The Endless Interrogations

To understand the motivations of your characters, you need to interrogate them. Strap them to a chair, shine a bright light in their eyes, and make them talk. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Why did you do that?
  • Did you have something happen to you as a child?
  • In high school?
  • In college?
  • Did someone hurt you?
  • Did you hurt someone else?
  • Were you spoiled by your parents?
  • Did you have parents?

Once you’re finished with your interrogation, you need to show the reader what you learned. Here, the best practice to show rather than tell. You might summarize what you’ve learned, but it’s better to describe the scene.

First, though, let’s just get into our characters’ heads.

PRACTICE

If you have a novel you’re working on now, spend some time interrogating your protagonist, asking her why she does the things she does.

Write about her answers to your questions for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.