Thursday, June 14, 2007

The big CM!

By Josi S. Kilpack

(Josi is a techno dumwad and messed this up--it wasn't supposed to show up until Monday, but apparently she . . . messed it up. My apologies--Josi)

CM you ask? What is CM? Well, CM is the most important aspect of writing fiction because first and foremost, every novel is about characters. Be it a cow or an assassin, it's the characters to which the plot happens but in order for it to make sense, to feel real, the reader has to know the Character Motivation. Think of Character Motivation as the spinal cord of any good story. It's the aspect that controls everything else in the book, the method to their madness, the canvas upon which the plot is painted.
Yesterday, Meredith L. Dias posted a great blog about the difference between good and great novels. I had already been very much focused on the character motivations of my current WIP and so her thoughts were perfectly timed for me and so I chose it as the topic of my blog this week, both as a reminder to myself and a tool for you as well.

Character motivation is the "why" your character does what he does. You can have the quirkiest, funniest, and most unique character fall completely flat if you don't develop her to the point where the reader understands why she is making the choices she makes. If you find yourself using phrases like "She threw water in his face because she hated him" it usually means that you haven't developed your character to the point that we the reader would know why she threw water in his face. The way you convey these motivations to your reader is through three steps.

1) Know your character. If you don't know how to make a cake, how do you teach someone else to do it? If you don't know how to speak French, how can you help someone else achieve fluency? You wouldn't attempt either of those things, and should be just as hesitant to write about a character you don't know. I often find myself interviewing my characters as I'm driving, or in the shower. I'm not necessarily writing scenes, but just asking questions, then figuring out how this character would answer it. Spending this kind of time together helps me to really get into their heads. Yes, this sounds psychotic, what's your point? I am a writer after all.

2) Have a clear view of their goals. What is your character trying to resolve in this book? Where will the growth of your character take place? How will they be better at the end of the book than they were in the beginning? If your character doesn't know what she wants, then you the author don't know the character well enough. You should ask yourself at the beginning of your book "What does my character want?" And at the start of each chapter you ask again "What does she want now that things have changed?"

3) Really? When I edit other people's books I will often write out to the side "Really?". It means that the scenario they wrote made me pull my eyebrows together and question the realness of the act. Would he really hide in the shadows when he'd been waiting for hours to meet her? Would she really take the garbage out with nothing but a T-shirt on? Would they really drink eighteen martinis in one sitting? If I'm questioning this, then you need to see where you need to strengthen your characters motivations. Of course there is a chance I just missed something, but if that's the case then why wasn't it made clearer. For every action there is an opposite reaction. Make sure I understand the actions and reactions well enough to not be confused. So ask yourself "Would he really?" and make sure you've laid a characterizational foundation that supports that.

I'm a firm believer that you can write about anyone doing anything--so long as the right motivations are in place. There are reasons some women lie about their age and there are reasons why some men hate power tools. Firm up your characters motivations so that we understand. Show us her fear that, like her mother, she'll be diagnosed with breast cancer before she reaches the age of forty. She's terrified of getting older, of finding out that she too might have to face the end of her life forty years too soon and yet in the process her fear keeps her from really living at all. Show us that his father spent every free minute building something, instead of being with his son. He's determined not to do the same thing, not to let something as simple as a hobby take away from the father his children will have, and yet when something breaks he doesn't know how to fix it. If you know your character, understand his goals, and evaluate each of their reactions, you can have the solid character motivations that really are the difference between good fiction that entertains and great fiction that makes your reader say "Yeah, I totally get why she did that."


Anna Maria Junus said...

I've been known to start writing not knowing my characters and then they develop, doing things I didn't see coming but made sense.

And that's when rewriting comes in, because you have to go back and show more.

Great article.

Annette Lyon said...

This was my single greatest weakness when I first started out, and my critique group latched onto it and nearly broke me. Hard lesson learned, but a vital one: characters NEED to have reasons for what they DO! Great post.