Saturday, March 16, 2013

What's your motivation?

One of the hard parts of writing a novel is to know why characters do what they do.  Without some reason or motivation, they become puppets and the writer pulls the strings. This is an easy trap to fall into, and the reader will not feel any emotion or connection to the character.

A character in my latest novel (a work in progress) is Alan Bates. The novel opens with him contemplating suicide shortly after his wife has left him.  Here's  a brief bio for him.

     My mom was thirteen when I was born. She up and left the hospital shortly after they cut the cord, never to be seen again. Ella and Samuel Bates, her parents raised, me until I was four years old when Samuel’s drinking problems came to a head. He summarily executed Ella with shot to the head and another to his. He had enough forethought to leave me sitting on the front steps of our home with instructions not to move and a note pinned to my shirt. I don’t remember any of this.
      His brother, Phil, and Phil’s wife, Sandy, became my second foster parents. I lived with them until I was nine when Sandy died of complications from surgery for uterine cancer. Phil promptly took to drinking like his brother. They’d never adopted me and when these events became evident, chronic alcoholism is hard to hide, Social Services pulled me out and dropped me into another foster home. In never saw Phil again, although I heard he died of liver failure when years of drinking and taking acetaminophen for hangovers caught up to him. 
     I was placed in three more foster homes that I’d endured until age eleven. My own behavior became a bit out of control. I’d had several incidents of shop lifting, fights in school, assault with a deadly weapon (it was a steak knife for crying out loud and I never actually stuck anyone,)and car theft. By the way, I call these incidents, as most ended up with charges dropped, and the steak knife got me moved to a new foster home. The theft of the car, belonging to the last foster parents, was me trying to escape an overly religious environment and my belief that nothing would save me.
     My last stop before adulthood was at Deer Haven, which had neither deer, nor was  heaven, but a place for incorrigible boys with no other hope. The stories I could tell of that place would fill volumes. At eighteen years old, I was turned out into the street and deemed an adult. I had close to a thousand dollars in the bank, an account the school had set up for me, with money earned while living there; the school had a business that supposedly built character where we were dropped off in pairs at local businesses to do janitorial work. The most memorable moment during the time was a relationship I'd developed with a receptionist, who was twice me age, at one of the businesses. On my 18th birthday, the school released me to a small apartment populated with furniture donated by the Baptist church. Amenities like TV and cable, a computer and Internet, and a radio would be my additions. They also arranged for me to work at a local factory that made gaskets and o-rings, and stank of chemicals.

So, now I have insight to Alan's behavior. I know if challenged he will fight back. He probably does not develop lasting relationships although he has the capability. He longs for a connection with somebody, anybody. He's not afraid of being hurt physically, but mentally he is vulnerable. He'll fight for what's right. And most important I know how his story must end: he develops some meaningful relationship, or he's left completely alienated. I wonder if I can do both?

As I write this story, I'll include snippets of his life here and there, when appropriate. I want to show his life and not tell it as in this short piece, so I will elaborate, most likely on the fly, about some defining the moments.  The "steak knife attack" would be a good one. Perhaps the infatuation with the older woman another. Putting those snippets in non-chronological order can makes things interesting, as the reader will began to understand him, but not piece the whole thing together right away. It's best to leave the most defining moment of his life, which can foreshadow how things turn out, to later in the tale.

Also, note that I write this in the first person, which makes me feel more connected to the character. Understanding the character's motivation is the key and paramount to writing a believable tale. Know how the character thinks makes the task of writing his story easier.

That's my writer's food for thought. What's your character's motivation?

Ron D. Voigts is the author of CLAWS OF THE GRIFFIN now available in trade paperback from Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

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