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Characters Driven by Motivation

Where’s the emotion? The tension? The conflict? No one wants to read something that’s missing any of these elements. Sigh. Well, of course they don’t!

I’m usually drawn to books where the plot drives the story, not necessarily the characters. But for my next challenge, I want to create a character-centered book. And in making this decision, I’ve realized that I need to have a really clear understanding of what drives my characters.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John. When I first started reading it, I kind of felt frustrated. I know what all these things are, what I want is to learn how to develop them in my characters and stories! Luckily, that’s when I got into the good stuff. Based on her suggestions, I created some character worksheets centering around the most important things, I think, a person needs to know to create a character-driven novel.

These are some of the things I included in my character worksheet:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • How Someone Can Exploit Their Flaws
  • Goals (Internal and External)
  • Motivation
  • Emotional Conflict Keeping Him From His Goal
  • External Conflict Keeping Him From His Goal
  • What Made Him Who He Is Today
  • Beliefs
  • Values

What I really liked about this is that it forced me to clearly identify my characters’ internal and external goals, and what is keeping them from reaching these goals. I find it very easy to write a story where a dragon is keeping a character from saving the person he or she loves. I find it harder to write a story where the character’s fear of fire keeps him or her from even attempting to rescue the person they love. But the truth is, a good story needs both types of conflict in order to really entice readers and keep them reading.

For example:

Story Idea: Amy’s father doesn’t believe she can learn to use her powers for good, so she sets out to prove him wrong.

This is a good basis for a story. We know right away what motivates the character and what her goals are. But what if, deep down, the character is terrified to use her powers. What if, the last time she used her powers she killed her mother. Now, that’s the basis of good plot! She may run into a number of obstacles, conflicts, that keep her from her goal, but none of these external conflicts will ever hold a candle to the internal conflict she carries with her each day. And your reader, they’re going to be holding their breath, waiting to see what happens when Amy finally has a chance to use her powers. Will she be too afraid? And if she does use them, will she repeat her past mistakes?

I’m so glad that each day I’m learning more and improving my skill as a writer, because mastering internal and external motivation seems to be the key in making a truly remarkable, unforgettable character-driven novel.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve always been drawn to the characters who are reluctant to use their powers but are forced to use them for various reasons.

    For instance: Amy might believe that she shouldn’t ever use her powers due to her Mother’s death. To put a twist on it, maybe her father is the only one in the village who knows it was an accident, but the rest of the people don’t trust her. They want to banish her. She hates living with herself, with the pain she has caused others, and flees from the town. Eventually she gets kidnapped and is forced to use her powers to free herself, thus starting on a journey to realize that she’s not a bad person and her powers can actually be used for good. This reminds me of Elsa in Frozen.

    Then she comes back and destroys everyone in her town for being a jerk to her!



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