Spend a little time with a small child and you’re likely to hear one phrase repeatedly. Why? Why is the sky blue? Why did the light change? Why can’t I have ice cream for dinner? Any answer you give is not good enough. Why did you buy a hot dog? Because I was hungry. Why were you hungry? Because I hadn’t eaten. Why hadn’t you eaten? Because we were busy. Why? Why? Why?
For a small child there is never an answer good enough to stop the onslaught of questioning. Each answer begs a new why. It can be tiring and frustrating as a parent. It’s where the classics “because” and “because I said so that’s why” came from. Not a great answer, but I think all parents resort to it at some point. And as a much as it might work to stop the questioning child, we get in trouble when we take that attitude in our writing.
Characters need reasons. To be believable, they need reasons that make sense. Your character’s actions and reactions should stem from their personalities and their motivations. Our characters are no different than us. They are people who do things for reasons that make sense to them.
I’m passionate about writing, but I spend eight hours a day (nine if you include lunch break) being a receptionist. Why? It doesn’t make sense. If I love writing so much, why would I choose to use the best hours of my day doing something else? My motivation is the reality that since my husband’s unexpected job change came with a serious pay cut, I need to work so my children can eat. I’m just starting out as a writer, and if we lived on that income alone my children would starve. In light of my motivation, my decision to work suddenly makes sense.
I choose to write about books, faith, and life whether it is on this blog or in my books. Why? My faith makes me who I am. I have a firm belief that God wants me to encourage and challenge other believers in their own faith walks. I believe it was God who gave me a passion for reading and writing. I believe God wants us to use our talents and interests to minister to others. These things are my motivation for writing what I write.
Why do your characters do what they do in the ways they do it? If you can’t answer that question, study your character. Spend some time getting to know them. Their motivations don’t have to be complex. There doesn’t have to be some huge master plan driving their choices.
In my book, Faith’s Journey, Katie’s motivation was to escape the hurt caused by her fiancé’s betrayal. As the book progressed, her focus shifted to finding out how to recapture the faith she knew as a child and live it in her adult life. There were other smaller motivations within each scene, but these two played out through all of them. Her motivations, personality, and circumstances worked together in shaping her choices throughout the book.
Knowing a character’s motivation helps you stay focused on what’s important in your storytelling. It allows you to see with more clarity the things that slow your story down, the things that need cut no matter how well written they may be. When authors stay focused on the real story of our characters, the readers can tell a difference. Readers can become more invested in the character. They can understand them and relate to them with more ease. They want to know what happens next because each part of the story is building off the previous part. Knowing our character’s motivation is part of the process that deserves our attention.
Equally deserving of our attention is what motivates us in our lives. As believers, God should have the most important place in our lives. It’s easy to say but hard to live on a daily basis. Even when we do the right things, if our motivations are not in the right place, what we do loses its meaning. Galatians 6:7-8 tells us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” If we look at Matthew 6:1-4 God’s message is plainly stated. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. ‘Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’”
It isn’t enough to simply do the right things. We need to search our hearts and know why we do what we do. We may be able to fool some people if our motivations are selfish, but we can never fool God. Serving God is only serving God when He is our motivation.