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4 Ways To Motivate Characters And Plot

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Taken from Writer’s Digest,March 19, 2013

 4 Ways to Motivate Characters and Plot

Today’s guest newsletter is from Nancy Kress, author of Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint.

Some of your characters will change during the course of your story-let’s call them changers. Others-stayers-will not change significantly in personality or outlook, but their motivations may nonetheless change as the story progresses from situation to situation. Both changers and stayers can have progressive motivations.
Confused? Don’t be; it’s simpler than it may seem. Characters come in four basic types:

  1. Characters who never change, neither in personality nor motivation. They are what they are, and they want what they want.
  2. Characters whose basic personality remains the same; they don’t grow or change during the story. But what they want changes as the story progresses (“progressive motivation”).
  3. Characters who change throughout the story, although their motivation does not.
  4. Characters who change throughout the story as their motivation also progresses.

When you know the key motivation(s) behind your character and plot, you can write scenes that not only make sense to you and your readers, but also add depth to your story. Because character and plot are intertwined, we’ll refer to the above four as character/plot patterns. Let’s further explore each one.

Static Personality, Static Motivation

Sometimes a character will have a single overriding motivation for the entire length of a story or novel, plus a strong personality that does not change much. James Bond is a good example. He’s a stayer who starts out resourceful, suave, unflappable and smart. At the end of each of Ian Fleming’s novels, Bond is still resourceful, suave, unflappable and smart.
Nor does his motivation change. At the start of the book he receives a mission, and his goal is to pursue this mission until it’s over, at which point the book ends. There may be interim temporary goals (not getting eaten by alligators, protecting the girl), but they are all part of the single overriding motivation. (Learn more about setting goals in The First 10 Pages: Science Fiction & Fantasy Boot Camp , which is three days of instruction and inspiration, and includes a critique of the first 10 pages of your novel.)
It isn’t only adventure fiction to which this applies. In John Steinbeck‘s classic Of Mice and Men, both protagonists, George and Lennie, retain the same motivation throughout. They want to earn enough to buy a small farm of their own. Their personalities, too, remain the same: George the planner and caretaker, Lennie the well-meaning bumbler who brings them both to tragedy.
If you are writing this type of book, your job is to present to us the character and the goal clearly and forcefully fairly early on. Then unfold your tale; we’ll know who your man is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. This leaves us (and you, the writer!) free to complicate other things besides the hero, such as the plot, the conspiracies or the hardware.


3 comments on “4 Ways To Motivate Characters And Plot

  1. russtowne
    March 22, 2013

    Thank you for the helpful and interesting information, Judy!


  2. Kris
    March 28, 2013

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but the recent James Bond actually have him changing his character. He falls in love in the updated Casino Royal. Perhaps that’s the best way of keeping a character fresh…to allow them to change.
    Even Nancy Drew has changed since the 80s. Interesting thoughts. Thanks.


    • Judy
      March 29, 2013

      Hi Kris, I am so glad that you found it interesting. I got hold of a book of fiction a while back that had an interview with James Bond after his obituary was in the newspaper. It’s really interesting as it delves into the thoughts of the character. I just can’t remember the name of it at the moment. Apparently he is the only fictional character to have ever had an obituary placed in a newspaper. He really is so integrated into our culture isn’t he? 🙂


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