March 17, 2016 / 5 Comments

All Purpose

            I’m sorry this is a bit late.  Well, four  weeks late.  That’s not a bit, that’s crazy-late.  I’m in the final weeks for this manuscript and I’m really trying to make it fantastic.  That’s pretty much been my main focus the past month or so, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
            Hey, speaking of which…
            One of the most common things that makes a character unbelievable is when they have no purpose for their actions.  We’ve all seen it.  The guy who decides to pick a fight over something petty in the middle of a crisis.  The person in charge who continues to ignore someone with key information.  The spouse who’s just a jerk.  The ninja who attacks for no reason.
            Nothing knocks a reader out of a story faster than people just randomly doing stuff.  There’s a simple reason for this.  In the real world, when people do things for no reason, they’re usually considered to be insane.  Not an interesting insane, either, but the “lame motivational excuse” insane.  If I run into a  burning house to save a baby or a dog, I’m going to be considered a hero whether I make it out or not.  If I run into the flaming house just because it’s there, I’m going to be considered an idiot.

           People need a reason to do things.  Real reasons.  Reasons that jibe with their background and their personality and with basic rules of behavior.  That’s why you’ve heard of people motivating horses with a carrot on a stick but not with a t-bone steak on a stick—horses like veggies, not meat.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s completely understandable that Belloq wants to open the Ark before taking it to Germany, and believable that the Nazi officers would feel uncomfortable about performing a “Jewish ceremony.”  This fits with Belloq’s smarmy background and it makes sense—historically, even—that the officers would be a bit by disturbed by what needs to be done to open the Ark.

            So here’s a challenge for you—try to picture that scene reversed.  Imagine if, at that point in the film, the Nazi colonel was insistent on performing the ceremony and Belloq said “no, no, I really think we should just take it to der Fuhrer and let him deal with it…”  It wouldn’t make any sense, would it?
            In the big scheme of things, most people’s motivations tend to be simple.  If you’ve ever seen a procedural show, they often talk about the common motives for murder.  Love, money, revenge—they’re very basic ideas.  The unspoken motive for the investigators on these shows is justice, or perhaps closure.  In Raiders, Belloq is looking for glory and maybe a bit of power (I think it’s safe to say he was secretly hoping he’d get all the benefits of that “hotline to God”).  Indy wants to stop the Nazis and save the Ark for a museum.  The Nazis want to obey the orders from their commander.
            In the book I’m working on right now, a major motive for the main character is infatuation.  It’s why he takes the actions he does that kick off the story.  But not very far in, fear and survival become big motivators for him.  His actions might not always be rational, mind you, but his actions fit who he is and what he thinks he can accomplish.
            Now, sometimes the story needs people to act a certain way.  It’s been plotted out and the characters need to do this now so that can happen later.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that this need doesn’t make a character’s actions more believable or forgivable.
            The reader has to be able to relate to my character’s purpose for doing things.  While characters might have very true and proper motivations within the context of their tale, those motivations still need to be interpreted by the chosen audience.  This is especially important for stories set in different cultures (Japan, for example, or India under the caste system) or perhaps in entirely fictitious ones (Barsoom, Diagon Alley, or the grim darkness of the future).  It’s common to hit this wall when the writer knows their chosen setting too well, or maybe had to build it from the ground up.  To me, it’s completely clear and understandable why a Thark warrior would act this way—why waste time going over it, right?  To you, though… this may not be so clear.
            Let me toss out one other thought about motivations.  Up top I gave a list of situations that many of us have probably dealt with.  The random aggressive person.  The jerk spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend.  The willfully ignorant boss.   These people really exist.  Hell, I had that higher-up boss for two years at one point.
            As I’ve said here many times, reality is not a story point.  It’s not part of a character sketch, either.  Once I put that boss into a story, my readers are going to expect there’s a purpose to him being there.  That there’s an actual reason for his behavior.  And if there isn’t… that’s on me as the writer.
            Look at the characters in your story.  Follow them for a few pages.  Can you explain their actions with one or two simple words?  Are they words most people will know?  Do these words relate to the character and not my outline?
            Then you’ve probably got some very driven characters.
            I’m not sure I’ll be able to post anything next week because I’m a “special guest” at WonderCon here in Los Angeles.  And I’ll be in the last two weeks before this new book is due.
            Or maybe I’ll just stop making excuses and write something.
            Until then… well, hopefully you feel motivated to go write.

0 replies on “All Purpose”

Hey Peter,

I recently found your blog and can honestly say I have gotten a lot of value out of the posts I've made it through thus far. Glad to see you are still alive!

It's interesting that you bring up this issue, because it's one I have wrestled with both as a reader, and as an aspiring writer. I've read stories where the character (or characters) behaves in a certain way that almost seems idiotic to me as a reader, and it is only when everything is revealed much later that the story more or less made sense. Prior to knowing the full plot, I felt frustrated because it seemed as you described: "It’s been plotted out and the characters need to do *this* now so *that* can happen later." I believe the story eventually revealed believable motivations and purposes, but is there a rule of thumb for handling that? I don't think the author intended on frustrating the reader in that manner.

I guess another way of asking is… What is a good way to keep from revealing crucial elements too early and still make a character believable, when said character's motivation *is* a crucial plot element?

Good luck at WonderCon!

– Nick

P.S. Did you mean "In the big scheme of things" and "investigators"?

I did. Jeeez, how'd I mess things up that bad…?


As for your question… It's tough to say because every story's different. There is no rule of thumb because what works for my story won't necessarily work for yours. It becomes an empathy issue where I (the author) have to be very aware of how you (the reader) are going to interpret things.

I've posted a bit about motives and reveals in the past, if you hit the tag cloud. There may be something that strikes a chord with your particular situation there.

No problem! I didn't want to be *that guy* who points out spelling/grammar mistakes, but judging from some of the other posts I'd read, I figured you'd rather have someone point it out than let it go unchecked.

The empathy advice makes sense. I actually have started digging through some of the older posts on this topic, as well as just browsing in general. I thought Voodoo Zombie vs Biochem Zombie had a particularly relevant section and was a great post in general. I've discovered I can easily kill an hour reading one post because I find myself wanting to read all the related posts linked in the content. Then those posts have links, etc.

Nevertheless, it's great stuff! You should write for a living or something. 🙂

I dont think there's ever a good time / reason to point out typos but….

in regards to the blog (great by the way) what are your thoughts on characters that have "extreme" motives or personality traits?

one thing that always sticks with me in all story telling, is when a character is introduced with a personality trait that is excessive or extreme, it works well within the story being told. But there's the sense that if this person had this trait throughout their entire life, then there's no way that they could have managed to stay sane / useful up to the point where the story begins?

I've just finished The Fold and whilst I dont relate Mike, to my above statement, there were moments in the book where i would try and imagine him going through normal life with his condition and still maintaining sanity. I think the ants were a great cover for this and totally worked, but theres a lot of authors / writers that dont include that mechanism and just have someone extreme pop up and work.

When you write do you take into account how their traits may have worked in none story related issues? Or would you be happy to just let something like that slip?

The Fold by the way, amazing.

Hey, Andy,

Sorry for the long delay answering you. Extreme/excessive personality traits can be tricky, because (like you said) they can wear out their welcome really fast. I've touched on this sort of thing before, usually talking about superpowers, gods, or a character type I call a mosquito.

Personally, I think most good writers think about a character's existence pre- and post-story (assuming they make it through). What they went through before is going to affect who they are now, so it's good to have that sort of thing in mind.

That being said… a very early draft of The Fold actually had Mike much more open and comfortable with his abilities, almost to a point of arrogance. But when I started working on it full-time and thinking about his abilities, I realized what a hell it would be to actually have them–and changed his character accordingly.

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