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Writing Excuses 6.2: Internal Motivations

Writing Excuses 6.2: Internal Motivations


Key points: Character motivation has two aspects: what does the character want? How is that expressed on the page? What the character wants includes their big overall goal, what they need to do to reach that goal, and what do they want to do it immediately right now. Beware caricature and wild shifting. Play immediate needs against overarching goals. Let motivations shift in response to what's happening. One way to express motivation: throw in a thought. Let the reader see what is happening filtered through the character. Be sparing, and establish character well before you need it. "When a character makes a significant action or decision, the reader wants to have all the pieces already so that they can know exactly why the character did that." [Dan] Brandon's advice: use the thought, young writer. But don't overdo it. The descriptive words a character uses can help. Also, consider all five senses. Let another character point out changes. Just make sure you set it up well before you need it.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Six, Episode Two, Internal Motivations.
[Howard] 15 minutes long...
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry...
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we are recording once again, in case you missed the episode last week, with Mary Robinette Kowal, who is now a full-time member of the podcasting team.
[Dan] Woo hoo!
[Mary] Yay.
[Howard] Yay.
[Brandon] Yay. Wow, we are so enthusiastic.
[Mary] Well, I don't want to hurt their ears.
[Dan] Muppet arms.
[Howard] Jordo, we need you to dub in some applause.
[Brandon] You keep saying stuff. You know he's not going to do it.
[Howard] Exactly. That's...
[Mary] The comedy.
[Howard] It's a running gag.

[Brandon] All right. Internal motivation. We're talking about character motivation here. Not your motivation for writing... That's a different podcast entirely. We're talking about characters having their internal monologue, their internal... Whatever makes them tick, have the right motivation. Mary, you suggested this podcast. Can you explain it better?
[Mary] Well, there are two aspects of character motivation. One is, what does the character want? The other is, how is it expressed on the page? What the character wants also breaks down further into two things. One is the what is their big overall thing that they want in life? The other is, what do they need to do to accomplish that goal? Sometimes those things come into conflict with each other.
[Brandon] Right. I would add a third one in there, the what do you want immediately right now?
[Mary] Yes.

[Brandon] For instance, your story can be about getting vengeance upon your father, but if... Upon your father? Yeah, sure. Your story can be getting vengeance upon your father. It can be anything. But one story about motivations that I like to share... If anyone's seen the show Lost? We talked about this... I think I've talked about this before. Remember, there's one character that drives everyone crazy in season one. This is the man who's lost his son. He becomes defined only by having lost his son. They make his motivation very clear. "I want to get my son back." But it smacks a little bit false to us. He becomes so focused on that, that we lose him as a character. The reason for that, talking about motivations is, people may have grand motivations. You may want to overthrow an empire. You may, listener, want to write a book. That may be one of your overpowering motivations. Yet, moment by moment, we are motivated by other things. Letting the reader understand what the character is being motivated by at this moment can really help make your characters feel alive, and keep them from, number one, becoming caricature, but, number two, if you keep this clear, they'll also stop from being schizophrenic. Those are the two polar problems here. On one end, you have someone who's driven only by one concept, and they turn into melodrama, one emotion. But on the other end, they're swinging around so rapidly and we can't keep track of it, that they feel schizophrenic.
[Dan] I have a book next year coming out about a guy who's schizophrenic... On purpose.
[Brandon] All right. You're exempted.
[Dan] But, yeah. It was hard to keep his motivation clear.
[Howard] Take me for example. I want to get lots of recording done today, but I'm also starting to get hungry. Okay? That's a great example of conflicting motivations.
[Mary] My motivation right now is for my stomach to not growl on tape. Not that we tape anymore.
[Howard] Our mixing console's motivation right now is to make clear to everyone that there is no tape. I am completely digital. Respect me.

[Mary] One of the things that you can do with motivation is have the immediate need play directly against the overarching... For instance, using Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, the thing he wants most in life is to be a great Jedi like his father. Unfortunately, there comes a moment where in order to be a great Jedi like his father, what he has to do is kill his dad.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So the what he needs to do comes into direct conflict with what he wants.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's a great example. I mean, stories are built around conflict like that. Any time that... Having a true conflict... Having a character's own motivations pitted against one another, that's the stuff of great drama.
[Howard] Well, if we look at Luke Skywalker again, almost our first introduction to him was whining that he wants to go get some power converters. He wants to go into town. He doesn't want to be stuck in the house. Then we discover that he does have an attachment to this house and these people. His motivation... I don't want to say that his motivations necessarily change, but it certainly colors his character as we recognize he's just... He's not, "Oh, great, there's nothing holding me here now. Let's leave!" It's, "Oh. Well. There's nothing holding me here now. We can go."

[Mary] Yeah. That's also true, that your characters' motivations can shift in response to what is happening in their lives. When they don't shift is when you start running into flat characters.
[Brandon] Yeah. They should shift. What the character wants and their motives should shift over the course of the book. Now, granted, you're probably not going to usually change your big, massive this is my motivation for being in this book. Yet if that characters understanding of their goal doesn't change across the course of the book... And our understanding of it. I mean, I mentioned Tarantino earlier when we were talking about podcasts. Tarantino, Kill Bill... Warning, content, by the way. But if you watch Kill Bill... If your understanding of that vengeance doesn't change alongside the character's understanding, then you're watching a different film than me. Because that story starts off a simple revenge narrative. That vengeance the characters want to get is the dominating force. It's the dominating force right to the end. But each aspect of this getting vengeance... Each time she fights someone new... Your heart wrenches a little bit. Your heart... You change as you see even the character's motivations slowly change.
[Dan] Yeah. I was re-watching Scott Pilgrim last night, because it turned on and I was powerless to not watch that movie because I love it so much. It struck me again like you were saying how... The overall motivation was the same, he has to fight for this girl. But as it goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the process of fighting is tearing him apart. So his motivation at one point is just survive. It's not so much I need to win, I just need to survive the next fight. Those motivations keep changing, but always, like you say, there's that one strong thing pulling you there.
[Howard] Well, the dark moment in that movie is when we realize he's begun asking himself, "Is this really worth it? Was this... Is this really worth it? Because what I want right now is to not have to fight anymore." Scott Pilgrim has a wonderful character arc.

[Brandon] I'm going to throw us into our book of the week a little bit early this podcast. Then we'll come back, talking about how to do this. Howard, you're reading Connie Willis's Blackout. Why don't you tell us about it?
[Howard] I am. Well, it is set alternatively depending on which perspective you take... It is set in Oxford of 2060 or it is set in England in various parts in 1940, 1944. It's a time travel story about historians going back to various locations and observing things. What's fascinating about the book and one of the things that I love about it, is that the time travel that she posits is one in which there is some fundamental law of the universe that prevents time travelers from being able to go anywhere and actually affect events. Even though they go and they do things, they eat food, they are butterflies flapping their little wings, but the time travel machine will break down or will fail to send them if they could have gone to a point where they could actually cause divergence. This is fascinating because you have time travelers going back, interacting with people in World War II, doing fun stuff. Why do I like it? Because all of these characters are motivated in ways that are completely foreign to me. They are all historians. I keep listening to them and thinking, "You know what? I just don't want to be in 1944 anymore." My motivation would be catch the nearest time bus back to the future and go be a fry chef. A space fry chef. Whatever. But they look at 1944 or 1940 or wherever they are, and they say, "Well, I want to get through this assignment, because I need to go to Pearl Harbor next." Love the book. I haven't gotten to the end of the sequel which is All Clear. I'm hoping I love it all the way to the end. It's up for a Hugo.
[Brandon] Yes. Hugo nominated. Connie Willis is a fantastic writer. If you haven't tried one of her books, this would be a great place to start. Go to to try a 14 day free trial of the audible subscription service, and get a free book.

[Brandon] All right. So let's talk about how to do this. How to, as writers, express your character's internal motivations. Because this is a really essential skill. A lot of the character motivation is going to be expressed in ways that could get you into trouble as a writer. Meaning a lot of times, when I read new writers writing, it's not what the character does that's a problem. It's me understanding why the character does it. So, Mary, how do you make sure this works?
[Mary] Well, there's a couple of things. One is what the character is doing in the scene. But you can throw in... The example I use sometimes is... Like if you just have the action, "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. He jerked her out of the chair." You have no idea why he pulled her out of the chair. All you have to do is throw in a thought. "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. Couldn't she see it was broken? He jerked her out of the chair." Is totally different than, "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in the chair. He hadn't seen her since California. My God, she looked good. He jerked her out of the chair."
[Howard] "The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting in his chair. He jerked her out of the chair." We have three completely different motivations.

[Dan] I had experience with this recently. My new series coming out next year is called Partials. Sent the thing to the... Sent in the first manuscript... The first draft to the editors. They sent it back and said, "The story is great. All the plot pieces, all the character pieces are working. But we're not getting enough motivation out of the characters. We're not getting... Everything that happens makes sense, we just need to know why." So basically what I'm doing now is going through and adding her viewpoint in as much as possible, making sure that everything that happens is seen through her eyes, filtered through the lens of that character. Even though I knew already that that was a good thing to do, I hadn't done it enough. It's been amazing to me to just watch that character come alive, just by adding in these couple of little thoughts like Mary's talking about so that when something happens, we're seeing it as she sees it, rather than just as a reader.
[Brandon] I've... Go ahead, Mary.

[Mary] Well, I was going to say that one thing that I think is important to do... Do that sparingly. But also to make sure you have established it well before you get to whatever climactic scene is coming so that you don't need to do it in the climactic scene, because the audience should know the character well enough by that point.
[Dan] That's what...
[Howard] If there's one thing I hate, it's when I get to a climactic scene, and now I'm told somebody's motive for being in this scene. That's... That is as close to deus ex machina, regardless of what the outcome is.
[Mary] Well, it's partly that, and also partly, it can totally throw pacing off, if you suddenly pause to...
[Dan] If you have to explain that. That's why, just like in mystery, when you get to that climax, the reader wants to be able to put the pieces together. They want to have all the clues so that they can solve it. Character is the same way. When a character makes a significant action... Or a decision, the reader wants to have all the pieces already so that they can know exactly why the character did that.

[Brandon] I'm constantly a little bit befuddled by this. I teach creative writing to new students. I teach at BYU. How many of them won't use the thought tool. Now, there are certain books that it's not appropriate. You don't want to use it, that's fine. But so many of them... I'll say, "Put in some thoughts. Really, put in some thoughts." A lot of them... I would say three quarters of them never do it. I'm not sure why.
[Dan] I suspect...
[Howard] Because they're students and they don't want to put any thought into it at all.
[Dan] I think that it's because we have grown up with so much cinema, so much movies. That's a very cinematic technique.
[Brandon] Maybe.
[Howard] They're trying to tell third person cinematic instead of third person limited.
[Brandon] That's a really good point, Dan. You might be right on that.
[Dan] So, breaking out of that. Getting down inside of their heads in a way that a purely visual medium can't do as effectively...

[Mary] Well, the other aspect of that, I think, is also that... And this is where I thought you were going to go initially... That were told so often, "Show, don't tell." In order to tell someone's thoughts, you actually have to tell them, or you have to do reported, which is, "He hadn't seen her since California." Which is a tell.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's a pretty big tell.
[Mary] But at the same time, that's something...
[Dan] But the alternative to that is ten full chapters of backstory.
[Mary] Right.
[Dan] Illustrating that he has not seen her since California, 10 chapters ago. It's in many cases, much simpler and better to just put in that one sentence to substitute for those 10 chapters.
[Brandon] Well, if you can do it in a way that's not a tell. Saying, "I haven't seen her since California." Okay, that's a step forward. But... Saying what Mary said earlier, "She looks so good. How long has it been?" If he thinks that, that feels more like a real thought. Rather than, "I haven't seen her since then." "How long has it been?" Or something like this, that is taking it one more step more natural, actually makes it more of a show rather than a tell. I always thought... I think, Dan, you're probably right, it might be a cinematic thing. I had kind of just assumed it was because it's so easy. That they think, "Well, I can't do something that easy." It is possible to take the thought thing way too far.
[Howard] Oh, yes.
[Brandon] Don't have a thought every paragraph or something like this. But adding it in every once in a while is a nice way to do this. But some people don't want to do it. This is...
[Howard] Well, in support of the cinematic stuff. In the last of the... I think it was the last David Tennant episode of Doctor Who. David Tennant's big oh, no, I'm going to die scene? They put in... The writers put in too much thought. There was a bunch of David Tennant dialogue where it is now time for him to push the button that is effectively going to end his life, and he monologues about how he doesn't want to do it. David Tennant is a good enough actor, and the people holding those cameras are good enough cinematographers, that if they had given him 10 seconds, and the screenwriter had said, "Here. Here is your motivation. Make that face." He could've pulled that off, and it would have been so much better. We're telling people to write thoughts, we need to remember that sometimes the character can just make that face, and sell all of that to us.

[Brandon] What are other tools? No thoughts. What are other tools to get across internal motivation, particularly in one of these hard scenes? Where you've got your overarching desire for your character, but in this scene, they're going to be acting counter to that or acting towards something else?
[Mary] One of the things is the descriptive words that you use. For instance, if he needs to sit down in a chair, and the chair is repulsive to him... Instead of saying the chair was repulsive to him, you can use descriptive words that make it clear that it's a repulsive chair. Like... um... I'm staring at a folding chair, and coming up with...
[Brandon] Repulsive things? I mean, why you do that, I can just say this is one of the powerful tools of third person limited, that we talked about, that Dan mentioned. Putting it strongly in viewpoint from the beginning, so that we know, when the narrative uses these descriptive words for the chair, it's actually the character's coloration of their thoughts that is coloring everything, the filter. Those words are coming from their soul, not from the writer telling it to you.
[Dan] Well...

[Howard] I don't know how this differs... Sorry, Dan. I don't know how this differs from saying their thoughts, but the five senses. Touch, smell, audio... I mean, we deal a lot with sight. But as you deal with... As you go through all of those, that colors the character. If I'm hungry, a scent... The scent of food is going to send me off, and is going to drive home to the reader that there's hunger.
[Mary] Exactly. What they're noticing. Like if you have a character that spends the entire time in a scene looking at... If it's a guy detective and he spends the entire time looking at the woman's legs? And you've just got paragraph after paragraph... Please don't do this... But paragraph after paragraph of description of her legs, you know what he wants, without anyone ever having to throw a thought bubble down.

[Brandon] Yeah. Some really great writers are able to have a character's motivations contrast to what they think their motivations are. If that makes sense. They're internally ironic by what they're doing that contrasts. Another way to do it is that... Hang a lantern on it. It's the cheap trick, but sometimes it's the trick that works. You hang a lantern on something. You have one character say to the other, "I thought you loved bacon?" Or... his character arc is so distinct that when he acts out of line with it, some other character calls him on it. Oftentimes, a really great writer can then have the character make one line of dialogue that explains a new depth and dimension to their character.
[Dan] And sells the whole thing.
[Brandon] That sells the whole thing.

[Dan] Now, one thing that we've mentioned in passing, and I just want to make sure we give it its due, is that a lot of this... A ton of this is the setup for it. Like you said earlier with giving those descriptions and putting that character filter on from the beginning, so that you can establish that. If your character is a doctor, and they walk around, and they notice medical stuff constantly and who's injured and who isn't, then when it becomes important, it will already be in the reader's head.
[Brandon] All right.

[Howard] I think it may have been a season four episode where Mary was first on our cast, and talked about puppetry. The things that you said about the motion and the breath and all of that of the puppet... I see that as informing motivation hugely. So listener, go back and listen to that one. We'll put the link in the liner notes.
[Brandon] One of the best episodes we've ever done. And it really wasn't us.
[Howard] One of, he says. As if it wasn't the.
[Dan] Mary's job addition for this.
[Mary] I will just sit here and quietly blush.

[Brandon] All right. Mary. I'm going to make you give us a writing prompt.
[Mary] So, writing prompt. Come up with a character motivation. Then, with an action that they need to take that is counter to the motivation.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right...
[probably cut due to time constraints... This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.]
Tags: caricature, characters, descriptive words, expression, five senses, goals, motivation, needs, third person limited, thoughts
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