characters / writers resources / writers tips / writing

Writers Tip #53: What Motivates Your Character Provides Conflict

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip: Know what motivates your characters

Motivation is to a character what conflict is to a plot, but on a personal level. What motivates your character is what they’re striving to achieve, but haven’t, what they dream of, but don’t have. They spend the entire novel trying to resolve that. Their growth throughout the story will reflect their success. Struggle is far more compelling than satisfaction. This character growth is part of what will make page-turners out of your readers. By the end of the novel, your audience should feel a sense of accomplishment with the character in what s/he has achieved.

In yourself–and your friends–actions and reactions are driven by a core of morals, beliefs, goals, desires. Nothing you do occurs without impact from those factors. So too, it must be with your characters, but how do you know what is? In my current novel, I wrote a prequel so I could hash out how my cast would react in every situation I threw at them. Only then did I know them enough to write their story. There are other, less time-consuming ways. Some suggest writing a detailed description. Some interview their characters, Others write scenes. The last conference I went to suggested writing a list of characteristics, then picking three and keeping those on your desktop for reference every time you write that individual in a scene.

Whatever way you choose, do it. If they are spiritual, this bleeds into their scenes. If having children is important to them, this will shade their relationships. If it’s politics, this may influence how they succeed at work. Your reader will want to see how each character resolves these internal conflicts and will want to see their growth throughout the novel. If you’ve wrapped the character as a person into the plot, this will happen naturally. If it doesn’t, go back and re-evaluate, find the parts that don’t sound authentic. These conflicts are what makes your character memorable and gives you a grip on the reader. Glory in them.

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a weekly columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Writers Tip #53: What Motivates Your Character Provides Conflict

  1. This is really great advice, and one of the things even many very good writers never seem to manage. So often the character is a vessel for message, which is fine, but not at the expense of being a real person.

    Isn’t that the worst part, though? You have to know the characters well enough that they seem like real people, to you. . . friends. Then you have to spend your time finding new and creative ways to make their lives miserable!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with that first comment. I get so wrapped up in my characters. I define them, put them through hell, give them redemption, closure, etc.,
    In making them real, it makes it that much harder to say goodbye to them.

    • It’s a lot of work–sharing who your character is, not unlike the time spent getting to know real people before you honor them with the label ‘friend’. That’s why I write a series.

  3. I hate having to torture my characters as well, Jacqui! I usually get someone to ‘interview’ me as my character before I write about my character so I know everything I need to know. If I’m asked a question about them that I don’t know the answer to, I go back to the drawing board. I have to know them inside out before I can write about them ;)

    • I think that’s the only way to make a story authentic. Truth, I don’t do enough of it. Probably why I’m better at non-fic than fic. For the moment! I’ll change that.

  4. I have lists from star signs to likes and dislikes, traits, habits and fears, I cut out clothes from magazines and pictures of where they live also I draw them to get an overall image of them. Put the list up close by so I can check the character is staying true to herself etc. I like the idea of interviewing them thanks Jacqui.

  5. Pingback: Writers Tip #54: Do You Know Your Characters | WordDreams...

  6. Pingback: Writer’s Tip #57: You are not Superwoman | WordDreams...

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