For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Motivating Character

'We must look at the intentionality of the characters and where they are heading, for they are the main influence upon the shape of stories.
James Hillman, Healing Fictions

For many of us (myself included), life consists of a series of reactions to the past, reactions which exist in the present and hence form our future. Unless we consciously seek to unravel the tangle of influences within us, we remain mechanical creatures, programmed by past events, by the people in our lives, and by the ideologies that we embrace, often unconsciously. The first step to unraveling this tangle is to see that there is a tangle in the first place. After that we can begin exploring what motivates our actions, what lies beneath the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Perhaps this is why strong, plausible characterisation is so fundamental to story.

To write stories well we need to understand character; not just what characters looks like, or how they act, but what motivates them. Why do they do what we do? What drives them? Why are they driven? What has formed them? These are basic questions that often reveal unexpected and richly rewarding answers. According to Jung, it is character that drives plot, not plot that drives character. And in The Way of Story, Catherine Anne Jones writes that 'it is the inner psychological state of the main character which fuels and drives the external plot'. Plot then, is secondary to character. Certainly in my own writing process this is the case; this is how I have always written, allowing the story to form around the characters. It is where I find the links with my own life and development, and where I attempt to write a 'living' story. I have found it vital to surrender to the process of writing and trust that a story will emerge; rich with character and complexity. To plot a story before it is written and then force the characters to act like puppets within the plot, is more often than not a recipe for unmotivated action and 'dead' implausible stories. As a writer it is playing it safe, refusing to respond to the call of adventure that signals the journey of story.

The source of a character's motivation often lies hidden within the early patterns of childhood, in the wounds and blessings that have formed a person. In The Writing Book, Kate Grenville warns against an over emphasis on motivation, saying that it can create characters that are 'too neatly motivated and too one-dimensional'. I don't agree. As in life, a three-dimensional, plausible character should be motivated, not by a single factor but by a number of factors, not all of them conscious. He or she should not only act, but also react to people, places and events, and these actions and reactions should have a convincing weight that carries and directs the story. When creating a three-dimensional character, I look for the factors and sometimes the patterns that motivate that character, and at the psychological reasons for that motivation (why they are motivated). I ask myself questions. What does my character want? What is stopping him or her from getting it? The answers to these questions can be found both externally (a character might want a new job) and internally (a character might want to be understood, or want to make a difference). Fusing the answers to these questions with the factors that motivate a character, helps to create conflict, a fundamental element in story.

Conflict is found on three levels. Firstly, from something unavoidable in the external world; an earthquake, for example, or the loss of a job. Secondly, from tension between characters, a disagreement with an employer or a power struggle between father and son. And lastly, from internal tensions within a major character, such as the fear of change, a deep sense of self loathing, or an unexpressed love. Internal tension is a strong generator of conflict and without it all the external tension in the world will feel hollow. As Robert McKee writes in Story, 'the closest circle of antagonism in the world of a character is his own being: feelings and emotions, mind and body, all or any of which may or may not react from one moment to the next the way he expects. As often as not, we are our own worst enemies.' Conflict generates story and within story lies the keys to the change and development needed to create a satisfying character arc.

As mentioned in a previous post, the outer passage of a story is the plot, while the inner passage of a story is the character arc. The outer passage the costume, the inner passage the essence. It is in the inner journey that the character uncovers the fragments that motivate him or her. This is the case in Flight, as Fern must search the past in order to find the motivating factors that have forced her to act in certain ways. It is within the flashbacks to her childhood and the visions of past lives, that the clues and motivations to Fern's character are provided. While not all stories involve a character arc, most do (more on this in a later post). Readers generally want to see the protagonist learning something about themselves. It is not a new self that is sought but a healthier, more knowledgeable self. Perhaps a self who can come to some acceptance of his or her circumstances, or a self who is able to reintegrate into society because of what he or she has learned. A short story might simply show a moment of epiphany or self realisation and leave the reader to imagine its potential, but in a novel there is generally a longer time line, so when a character learns something about themselves there is the opportunity to reveal to the reader the change that this knowledge brings. However, this change should come about gradually, otherwise the characterisation will necessarily be weak and the story formulaic.

Jung defines individuation as a coming to self hood or self realisation. In The Undiscovered Self, he writes passionately and urgently of the need for individuals to resist the collective forces of society, saying that to do this we must face our fear of the duality of the human psyche, in other words we must accept our shadow selves. It is in the inner structure of the story, the character arc, that we can see the process of individuation at work. Individuation, or the Hero's Journey, as Campbell would call it (more on this in a later post), is simply another word for a process that is as old as humanity - a journey of the soul or, as some would prefer to call it, a psychological journey. As writers and readers, perhaps we are seeking through story an experience of connection, a sense of commonality that can be discovered beneath the surface differences that appear to divide us from each other. Perhaps in some ways we use story to explore our own lives and the themes that move us. And ultimately, perhaps following the arc of a character in a story enables us to identify and understand the motivating factors in our own reactions and from this knowledge ultimately begin to act in more conscious manner.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

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