Friday, November 27, 2009

Motivating Tension

We have a WINNER:
Day three of our 12 Days of Christmas contest, chosen randomly by Studly Steve Grove is: Karen Schravemade! E-mail me, Karen at novelmatters@gmailcom with your snail mail address and I'll get those books to you in time for Christmas!

We're ringing in the 12 Days of Christmas on Novel Matters. (for full contest rules, click the link)

"On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me...
Three French Hens!"

I'll send signed copies of Talking to the Dead, Your Best You: Discovering and Developing the Strengths God Gave You, AND a signed copy of the anthology Hot Apple Cider where my short story The Stuckville Cafe appears, to the person who can find an author's last name in the phrase: THREE FRENCH HENS and name a title by that author OR submit a book title with one of the words from the phrase and the author. Submit your entry using the "Contact" button above. See complete details for the contest on the November 23rd post. Good Luck! The winner will be announced on Friday, November 27th.

A handy quick tip reference for creating tension in fiction is to have characters with clearly defined - and opposing motivations interact with one another.

I've seen lots of definitions of what writers think is character motivation. But I'm not satisfied with most of them. Probably because, as a student of psychology, I'm not satisfied with the current theories of motivation out there (but we won't get into that here - whew!) I think it's helpful to look a bit deeper at the concept of motivation and how it can be applied to character creation.

1. Motivations are not goals. A goal can serve as motivation, but it cannot be the single thing that drives a character to behave. This amounts to your character singularly serving a lone goal. This isn't realistic, and it isn't interesting reading. Instead, a goal needs to be understood as a character's ideal outcome - and not necessarily the outcome of the story. It should be complex, and should have clearly worked out acceptable compromises.

2. Motivation cannot be judged by behavior alone. One thing I've learned in my years working with families at risk: you cannot know what a person is trying to accomplish just by watching what they do. As an introduction to Chaos Theory, an instructor drew horizontal line on a chalk board. A volunteer held one end of a string and the instructor held the other. The instructor asked the volunteer to ensure the string remained parallel to the chalk line on the board - no matter what. The instructor proceeded to move his end of the string, up, down, side to side. The volunteer worked to keep the string parallel to the chalk line. The movement of the string forced her into all sorts of positions, climbing up on chairs, kneeling on the floor. The instructor then called in a second volunteer who was in the hall, and didn't know what was happening inside. The second volunteer was asked to explain what the first volunteer was trying to do. After observing for awhile, and several incorrect guesses, the second volunteer conceded - he had no idea what the first volunteer was trying to accomplish, and couldn't tell by watching the behavior. It adds interest for the reader if a character behaves in ways that do not, at first, seem to tie into the stated goal.

3. Motivation is not passive. It can be shaped and refined over time. It is always in movement. Excellent character arch includes the characters ability to redefine his or her goal based on what has happened in the plot (plot should mess with motivation - it's another way to create tension).

4. Motivation works differently for different people. There is the story of two brothers, raised by an alcoholic and abusive father. One brother becomes a lout, a playboy drinker who can't keep a job. When asked how he arrived at his current state, he replies, "With a father like I had, how else could I have turned out?" The other brother becomes a business man, marries, raises a family, abstains from excesses. When asked how he came to be such a success he replies, "With a father like I had, how else could I have turned out?" Try to avoid drawing straight lines from a difficult past as motivation behind a characters bad habits. It isn't always so cut and dried.

5. Motivation is a deeply felt need tied to basic instincts - motivation is emotional. Touch the motivation button in a character and you should see fire works of emotion (emotion - not melodrama). It is a character's hot button and when he comes up against an opposing motivation he will take it personally.

I hope this is helpful to you when you begin to plot a book, or when you pick a book up to read. Looking for those building tensions between opposing motivation can add to the enjoyment of the book. It is said that fiction is tension. Do you agree? What have you noticed about tension and motivation in some of your favorite reads?


Samantha Bennett said...

I loved this post, so gracias! My favorite reads all have buckets of tension. Most recently, I read Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The two main character definitely have opposing motivations (which do change throughout the story), and I couldn't flip through the pages fast enough. So good!

Patti Hill said...

The most excellent example of all Bonnie's points is The Help by Kathryn Sockett. If you haven't read it yet, ask for it for Christmas.

Wonderful post, Bonnie! I always learn so much from you.

Unknown said...

Samantha: Thanks for adding to my TBR list! I LOVE the title Hunger Games. I'll be adding this one to my Christmas wish list! Thanks~

Patti: I've heard so much about The Help - I'm waiting for the paperback to come to Canada. (Hardcover is very expensive up here). Thanks!

Complex writing about motivation can also include "tricking" the reader into thinking a character is aiming for one thing, but his true goal is left of center. This works well in a suspense or "who-done-it" work.

Jan Kern said...

Bonnie, as a nonfiction writer (so far) who enjoys using fiction techniques, I loved considering the topic of this post.
At this moment, I thought of the interplay of goals and motivation in terms of the movie I watched last night: My Sister's Keeper. I see all points at play. Fascinating!

And my entry for the Twelve Days of Christmas (since I love your books) is the novel, Hens Dancing, by Raffaella Barker. This is not a book I've read, but it sounds fun.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Now that I've been studying it for a while (instead of just devouring it for sheer pleasure), I agree. This post is making me think about some of my characters. Thank you!