If you aren’t born knowing the rules, learn them! – Truman Capote
If you aren’t born knowing the rules, learn them! – Truman Capote
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
Among the greatest commencement addresses of all time is an extraordinary speech beloved author Neil Gaiman delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
So potent and enlivening was his advice on courage and the creative life that the speech was adapted into Make Good Art – a gem of a book. Here is his advice:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.”
A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
This week’s writing prompt, although for everyone, is especially useful for those who are working on a bigger project – perhaps a novel or novella. The problem with writing a bigger work is that generally, there’s not much ‘reward’ in terms of recognition and publication throughout what is usually a long process. Most journals don’t accept novel excerpts as submissions, and so unless you’re working on multiple short stories as well as your novel, you won’t be published until *fingers crossed* your novel hits the shelves.
So here’s something for you to try:
Get yourself in the writing zone with your favourite tipple and a notepad. Draw a quick mind map of the main characters and the ‘support cast’ associated with them in your current work. Then take a closer look at one of these secondary characters.
The idea is to choose someone who is quietly relevant to your story – perhaps it is the actions of this character that made your protagonist act in a certain way or choose a certain path? It could be your lead man’s mother? Or an old school friend? Think about their backstory.
This story could be set years before the events in your novel take place, like the protagonist’s childhood, or the childhood of their parents, or a lover… Choose a character whose backstory impacts the narrative in a subtle way. This is your opportunity to explore events and characters that you love but don’t have room for in your current work.
Then write a short story based on whatever you come up with. This allows you to create something that can stand alone from your novel, yet benefit it at the same time. At best, you have a short story that you’re able to submit to literary journals for consideration, and at worst, you’ve built onto the backstory of your novel, and enriched one of its support characters or settings by getting to know them better.
Creating compelling characters is perhaps the most important aspect of fiction writing. So what about your characters’ motivations?
The decisions and actions of characters drive the plot of every story. And each of your story’s players – whether hero, villain, or supporting character – should have reasons for making those choices, and for carrying out those actions.
Clear, strong, and realistic motivations are essential for every round character in every story. But why exactly are these motivations so important?
Put simply, if you don’t establish your characters’ motivations, you run the risk of writing characters who fall flat. Characters who readers just can’t understand or connect with; characters who exist only to further the story; characters who are inconsistent, or who perpetuate lazy tropes and stereotypes.
Obviously, none of these types of characters are ones you want in your story! So it’s absolutely vital that you fully understand your characters’ motivations – and that your readers do, too.
Here are five key questions to ask yourself when establishing your characters’ motivations.
There are two key types of motivations your characters might experience: internal and external. (Bear in mind that they may experience both at the same time – more on that below.)
Internal motivations are those that come from within the character. The character is motivated to act by a choice they have made within themselves – a personal goal, perhaps, or a desire to achieve some outcome or reward.
External motivations are outside factors that motivate the character to act. Other characters, or situations outside the character’s control, may influence or even force them to make certain decisions and actions.
Often, a combination of both these types of motivations makes for interesting storytelling – especially if the two happen to be conflicting.
Let’s consider an example from an old favourite, the Harry Potter series. The character of Albus Dumbledore is a great exhibitor of both internal and external motivations, and a great example of how such motivations can also be conflicting.
The majority of Dumbledore’s decisions and actions are motivated by a desire to see the series’ antagonist, Voldemort, defeated. These are primarily external motivations, and they lead Dumbledore to formulate a plan using Harry Potter himself to defeat Voldemort – even though this means that Harry’s life will eventually be sacrificed.
However, Dumbledore also experiences a conflicting internal motivation: the desire to protect Harry, to see him lead a safe and happy life. This motivation leads Dumbledore to keep the details of the plan from Harry, and to delay the plan’s consequences until the last possible moment. As Dumbledore himself puts it…
I cared more for your happiness than your knowing the truth, more for your peace of mind than my plan, more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed.”
Now, not all of your characters’ motivations need to be this complex or conflicted. But it’s important to consider whether their motivations are internal, external, or both, and how these differing sets of motivations will affect your characters’ actions and the outcomes of the story.
How many times have you come across a villainous character who’s evil simply for the sake of being evil? Or a hero whose every action is completely altruistic and selfless?
These kinds of characters tend to fall rather flat – all because their motivations are unrealistic.
Very few real people do terrible things simply for the sake of it, and even fewer act selflessly 100% of the time. If you want your characters to read like living, breathing people, their motivations are going to have to be much more believable.
Unrealistic motivations tend to come into play most often with antagonistic characters. Sure, antagonists are required to create conflict in stories, but there need to be reasons for their antagonistic actions.
If you can’t explain why your antagonist wants what they want – if you can’t give them interesting and believable motivations – they’ll simply become a plot device rather than a fully fleshed-out character.
We think author Michelle Hodkin sums it up best:
The villain is the hero of her own story. Everyone has reasons for what they do.”
It’s a similar situation with protagonists. Everyone loves to read about a hero – but no one really connects with a protagonist who has no flaws in their personality or their motivations.
Remember that your characters should not be black-and-white – no real person is. Humans are complex creatures. Good people can be motivated by ‘bad’ or selfish reasoning, and bad people are often motivated by what they believe to be good or right.
Your characters’ reasons for doing what they do can say a lot about who they are. Exploring their various motivations is a great method of character development.
Your characters’ motivations can provide important insight into:
When you’re determining what drives each of your characters, consider what those motivations might reveal about them, and how this might help you to paint a more detailed, nuanced character portrait.
A note of caution, though: when revealing character through motivations, actions and reactions, it’s better to be subtle rather than blatant.
There’s no need to directly unpack and explain your characters’ every decision or action. Sometimes, it pays to let readers work out characters’ motivations for themselves, with only a little subtle guidance from you.
As the folks over at Now Novel point out…
It feels stagy when characters announce their motivations explicitly. Showing what drives them as a building arrangement of memories, fears, beliefs and ongoing experiences will make it easier for readers to draw their own conclusions about characters’ behaviour and what it means.”
People change. Whether through the natural process of growing older, through certain events and circumstances, or a combination of all of the above, no one remains the exact same person throughout their entire life.
Demonstrating this change through evolving and transforming motivations can help you create truly realistic, complex, and convincing characters.
Let’s go back to our example of Professor Dumbledore. A complex character with a compelling backstory, Dumbledore’s motivations change throughout the course of his life and the course of the Harry Potter story.
When we learn about a younger Dumbledore’s affiliation with the dark wizard, Grindelwald, we get an insight into his key motivation as a young man: power. This motivation led him to make plans with Grindelwald to place wizards in a place of supremacy above non-magic folk, supposedly ‘for the greater good’.
However, by the time we meet Dumbledore in the present, his motivations have changed entirely.
He now leads the fight against Lord Voldemort, who is following in Grindelwald’s footsteps and seeking domination over wizards and Muggles alike. There are numerous motivations leading Dumbledore to these actions: primarily, atonement for his past mistakes, and a desire for peace and harmony in the wizarding world (and the Muggle one).
This is a great example of how a character’s motivations can change drastically throughout a story, and how you can use these motivations to develop more interesting and realistic characters.
When examining your characters’ actions and decisions, it can be all too easy to justify them using your own authorial motivations, rather than the actual motivations of the characters. It’s important to distinguish between the two.
To do this, you must be honest with yourself. Question whether you’re steering the story in a particular direction because that’s where the characters are naturally taking you – or simply because that’s where you want the story to go.
We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with having a plan and a direction for your story. We’re simply encouraging you to recognise when you may be forcing your characters’ motivations to suit you.
One way to avoid doing this is to make sure you know your characters inside out. If you know everything about them, you’re better able to understand how they would naturally act and react in certain situations. This will help you determine whether the path you’ve set them on is a believable one.
If you’re having trouble becoming an expert on your characters, there are a few things you can do to get to know them better. Try writing out some background in the form of a short story or a biography/life history. Complete a questionnaire from their perspective, or just answer some key questions about their past. See my previous post on writing round characters for more ideas if you need them.
The better you know your characters, the better you’re able to ensure you’re presenting their motivations, actions and decisions in a convincing and compelling way.
When it comes down to it, your characters’ motivations are the central driving force behind your story. That’s why it’s so important to get them right!
Absolutely thrilled to reveal that Kamila Shamsie has won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction with her seventh novel Home Fire.
At an awards ceremony hosted in Bedford Square Gardens, central London – hosted by novelist and Women’s Prize Founder Director, Kate Mosse – the 2018 Chair of Judges, Sarah Sands presented the author with the £30,000 prize and the ‘Bessie’, a limited edition bronze figurine. Both are anonymously endowed.
The fantastic 2018 Chair of Judges Sarah Sands, said: “This was a dazzling shortlist, it had depth and richness and variety. We were forcibly struck by the quality of the prose. Each book had its champions. We loved the originality of mermaids and courtesans, we were awed by the lyrical truth of an American road trip which serves as a commentary of the history of race in America, we discussed into the night the fine and dignified treatment of a woman’s domestic abuse, we laughed over a student’s rite of passage and we experienced the truth of losing a parent and loving a child. In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times. Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.”
I’ve never had a character come to me fully formed and ready to go. They come to me like ghosts and I have to make them real by getting to know them over time. Creating (good) characters is hard work, but when you take the time and effort to make them ’round’ it’s always worth it.
So what is a ’round’ character? E.M Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, that:
The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat… It has an incalculability of life about it – life within the pages of a book.”
Someone once told me that if you can imagine the character existing outside of the novel, if they have lives that reach beyond their role in the book’s plot, they’re round. It’s all about putting life back in those ghostly figures that first appear.
But it’s not always so easy to create a round character. So how do you do it? One approach is to let the characters reveal themselves to you, to really sit down and get to know them. Here are 4 tips as to how you might achieve that:
Write out a set of questions for your character and conduct a kind of interview. This gets your brain thinking about all sorts of random details that you can use for background info to help round out your character. If you’re not sure what to ask, check out this list of possible questions.
HINT: This works even better if you don’t know the questions beforehand. Have a friend do the asking – it’ll keep you on your toes!
Imagine physically meeting your character for the first time (maybe in a cafe, or at the library – it depends on the character). How does the conversation begin? How do they respond to you? This is great for picking up body language and visualisations about the character.
HINT: It’s not recommended to tell people who aren’t writers that you’ve been ‘talking with your characters’. They just don’t get it. Trust me.
This idea comes from an article on The Write Practice. It’s a great way to work out the facts about a character. Don’t forget the important yet sometimes over looked details like age, date of birth, and previous work history.
HINT: As the article says, don’t hesitate to add more parts to the job application and really scrutinise your character.
Not many people write letters anymore, so this is a great way to learn more about your character’s motivations, their past, their friends and so on. It’s a good exercise for creating tone and voice as well as vocabulary.
HINT: Check out this writing prompt for more ideas on what to consider when writing your letter.
If you complete all these exercises you should really know your character by the end, and be well on your way to writing a fully rounded character.
There are lots of tips from great authors on how to write a story.
Well, here are some more from Kurt Vonnegut (11 November 1922 – 11 April 2007) — anarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead, and sad soul — with eight tips on how to write a good short story:
Some very good and interesting advice. You can apply these tips to novel writing too.