WHAT AND WHY DO COUNT
Successful stories require four driving elements—Who, What, Why, and Why Not. The first lesson was about Who. This lesson is about the What and the Why, with a lot of attention still paid to the Who and a quick note at the end about the Why Not. You may ask, what about how? Yes, there is a how, particularly in mystery/suspense, but it's not covered in depth in this course.
Why are goals important?
I'll answer with another question: What is a character without a goal?
A photograph, actually. An unmoving individual frozen in time, with no future and no past. Your character's goals reveal them. What a person wants tells a lot about them.
EXAMPLE: Tessa lives for shopping, She adores providing a lovely and inviting home, wearing clothing that express her personality and dressing her children in cute things. Does this make her shallow? Some people might think so.
Compare her with Ellen. Ellen lives in a world of gray self-denial. Her home is bland —lots of tan upon tan, maybe a little taupe for variety. She watches her pennies, restyles her clothes, and mends her children's things they'll make good hand-me-downs. Sometimes, though, she is overcome with yearning for that bright red dress and matching sandals or to dress her daughter in some pint-size biker's outfit. Is she repressed? Some people might think so.
MOTIVATION —THE WHY
Why does motivation matter?
We never truly know a person until we knows why they chose their goals. Does Tessa use her things to make up for some lack in her life or psyche, or does she simply have a healthy sense of entitlement and believes she has earned and deserves her booty.
Does Ellen live each day like a foot soldier trudging up an endless mountain . . . or is she directing her resources to a bigger goal? Say a Harvard education for her children. Or that country house that has always been out of reach.
Tell us what these women want and you'll get a glimpse of the kind of person they are. Tell us why they want it and you'll get a glimpse into their soul.
!A warning! This isn't to say that the (supposedly) healthier motivation is any better for story purposes than the (supposedly) more neurotic motive. Both are valuable, depending on your story. Our job as writers isn't to judge our characters but to make their lives miserable and unfold the details as they cope with the chaos we throw at them :-).
To complicate this subject even more, characters have external goals (save the princess, heal relationship with father, build a space ship) and internal goals (feel like a hero, fill the hole left by Dad's neglect, vindicate a nerd label) and external and internal motivation. Be aware that achievement of the external goal is visible to other people, but achievement of the internal goal can only be validated by the person striving for it. In this course, we will concentrate on the external side. Internal drives will be addressed later.
So let's take a look at the external goal and motive of a teenage boy attempting to build a space ship:
Goal: Build a space ship.
Motivation: The $100,000 award for the best science fair exhibit and the recognition that's been missing from his life.
Let's start with the goal. The story begins when our protagonist declares the goal and ends when it's achieved (or not).
EXAMPLE: His name is Herb Dribble, a name bad enough to cause him lots of misery from the jocks, but not so bad he can't live it down when he's rich. His stereotype is science nerd. His primary core strength is off-the-chart intelligence, his fatal blind spot is he's a scardy-cat but covers it up by acting goofy. His denied yearning is to be famous and adored but he knows he's not good enough. No surprises here—he's a classic nerd and his dreams of courage and boldness aren't really even dreams because he knows, and so does everyone else, that a celebrity's life is impossible for Herb Dribble.
One day a stranger approaches bearing plans for a working rocket ship. Who is this stranger? We'll find out later. Well actually, we won't, but you could if you want to write Herb's story. Right now, let's concentrate on the important part. Herb Dribble is on the path to fame and possibly fortune. All he has to do is win a science competition. A goal is born. But he knows he can't do it so he drags his feet. Typical denied yearning behavior because failure is too painful to face. Oops, that's another lesson in the Characterization Course
Motive is next and goes hand and hand with goal. Again, motive is the reason behind the goal and provides the urgency to achieve it. It makes the protagonist care about winning and losing. More important, it makes readers care. In the example at the beginning of this lesson, the woman who skimps is saving for her child's Harvard education, which makes us admire her. Herb, though, what do we do with him? What can transform this into a story that transcends its present geeky-guy-comes-of-age-and prevails cliche.
A popular girl with secret nerd tendencies take an interest in him? Been there, done that. How about a humiliating lunchroom disaster that brings a powerful someone to his aid? Oh, no, even more overdone. How about his family. What if his mother was once a movie starlet who never quite stopped mourning the life she left behind . . . and she's dying of an obscure incurable disease? If he wins this prize, he can give her the spotlight she so misses one more time before she dies. Or possibly save her life with an experimental cure paid for with prize money.
Have these Mother concepts been done before? Yes, but probably without this dollop of adult melodrama mixed with pimply teenage angst. What I do know is readers will care. It wouldn't matter if Herb lived on the planet Zarch and his mother had tentacles, readers identify with the anguish of losing a parent and the desire to reverse inevitable disaster, whatever it is. That emotion spans all ages, groups and nationalities. And what makes them identify is the heightened consequences of failure.
Which brings us to conflict.
CONFLICT—THE WHY NOT
Conflict is the universal name for the various obstacles, problems, frustrations or delays that occur when people pursue a goal. While conflict encompasses quarrels, rude comments, and fistfights, it essentially stems from opposing purposes and the most compellingly written conflict generally starts out by being subtle. It's the hint of bigger conflicts to come, not the explosion of emotion, that creates and maintains story tension (another word for conflict).
Why? Because it makes the outcome unknown and the need to know how things turn out makes readers turn the page.
Conflict sustains the story goal. Motivation moves the conflict forward. What makes a goal big enough to hold reader interest?
The consequences of failure.
The potential consequences must be so devastating that readers perch on the very edges of their seats until they learn how it resolves. While the rewards of success do hold a reader, tension is accelerated when the punishment is greater than the reward. For instance, the worst failure could be that he not only doesn't win the science fair, his mother dies at the very moment he learns he failed. Not only has he not saved her, winning would have felt like cruel irony. The anticipation that this can happen creates a ticking clock. The tragic potential makes us read on until we know the outcome and we root for the best all along the way.
Furthermore, the anticipated consequences don't even have to be real. Not as long as readers believe that the character believes they're real. If you recall the Wizard of Oz, we root for Dorothy to escape Oz because we know she's worried sick about Auntie Em's possibly fatal heart attack.
As viewers, we saw the snake oil salesman in Kansas lie about Auntie Em's heart attack and also know Dorothy bought into the lie. This makes her hell bent on getting home before it's too late. Once we believe that she believes, we care too. This fact of human nature is what makes Wizard of Oz a timeless success.
Technically, conflict and consequences aren't part of characterization, but you'll soon discover they can't easily be separated. Everything about storytelling is interwoven. And once you start applying goals and motivations to your character, parts of your story arc will pop up. Don't let those glimpses of the plot slide away. Make notes and keep looking for ways to raise the stakes.
As you work with these individual story elements, keep in mind that this is only one character's goal. Each significant character will have their own arc, including a character definition and goal and motivation. These goals will clash and get larger or be destroyed and thus changed. That, of course, is the story itself. For now, however, we'll concentrate on our protagonist and let the story fall into place around him.
And, have I said this before? I think I have, but your job after developing these oh-so-nice people (except for that nasty fatal blind spot) is to torture them until the end of the story where you'll either disappoint or reward them. Personally, I'm a fan of the happy ending, but, as I'll also repeat many times, it's your story.
This is a good time to test your understanding of the material. Complete the quiz and exercise and email them to the Bootcamp to get the correct answers.
This sample is lesson two of the Creating Characters Crash Course and is not the way the actual course material appears. Your packets will be formatted in pdf and you can use them on you computer or table, but I do recommend that you print out the exercises. If you get a bit confused doing these questions, remember that this is a sample lesson. Some of those answers are from lesson one, which deals with basic character development including points like the denied yearning or the fatal blind spot. . You will probably find them easy to do, but if you stumble, contact Connie at http://bootcampfornovelists.com with your questions.
What is the main story function of Motivation?
- a) To give purpose to the characters
- b) To stir up reader sympathy and engagement
- c) To makes sense of the characters' decisions and actions
- d) All of the above
Identify and design a story goal and motive for your focal character (hero/ heroine). Keep this external. She wants to become CEO of a company(external), not she wants power (internal). Same with the motive. She wants to show up her big sister (external) not that she wants family unity. In other words, design it so the nature of external goal and motive can be perceived by others, as well as the protagonist