The Reader's Secret Decoder Ring

This weekend at the judge training, we were discussing movies and people’s different preferences. At one point we ended up talking about scary movies. We chuckled about the clichéd woman in horror movies who runs out into the dark night in her pajamas, or equally silly, goes into the basement all because she hears a noise. And let’s not forget that she knows very well that there is a madman on the loose and he’s got an ax with her name on it.

So why is the above scenario humorous? Character motivation. Or rather the lack of character motivation. Most of these movies are shot with one thing in mind, to scare the movie-goer, so they get their characters in scary situations no matter how poorly motivated because it suits their plot. But in romance, we don’t have that luxury. We simply can’t stick our characters in Idaho because we need them to be there for chapter seven. We have to give them legitimate, believable reasons for going to Idaho in the first place.

I’m a huge fan of Deb Dixon’s book, “Goal, Motivation and Conflict”, I think it is the one book every writer shouldn’t be without. Ordinarily when discussing these three elements, we would start with goal, but to me motivation is the key. While I believe that all three of these elements are essential to good fiction, motivation is what makes your fiction readable. It’s like the secret decoder ring that comes in cereal boxes; it explains all of those crazy things your characters do or don’t do. With strong motivation, readers will follow you anywhere.

Haven’t you ever read a book that wasn’t that exciting or perhaps wasn’t that well written, yet the characters were so compelling you couldn’t put it down? I bet motivation played a big role in why you loved those characters.

Let’s go back to our woman from the horror movie, investigating a noise is not enough motivation for most people to go out into the night when a crazy murderer is on the loose. What if the noise she hears is her dog who’s outside tied to the swing set? Is that believable? To serious dog lovers it probably is. So let’s try something else, suppose she hears someone cry for help, is that believable? Well, for those of us seasoned horror movie watchers, this is an old trick, scary mad-man generally can talk so they can be the ones crying for help. So this might not be believable either. (I know you know where I’m going with this and it’s a trite example, but it works.) Okay so let’s say the voice she hears is not one of the crazy mad man or any other stranger, but the voice of her own 10 year old daughter. This gives her plenty of motivation to swing open those doors and run out into the night in nothing more than a robe and her bra. A mother’s urge to protect her children is a strong and universal motivation.

Here’s another example. (And for those of you who attended the training, I apologize for the replay) Let’s say your heroine needs a job – that’s her goal. But why does she need the job? That’s our motivation. Well, she needs this job because there are some pink shoes in a store window downtown that she simply must own. So is wanting the pink shoes enough motivation to sustain your story? Probably not, unless this is a very short story.

Let’s beef up the motivation. How about she wants those shoes because her grandmother owned a pair just like them and her memories of her grandmother are the only ones she has of being loved and cared for. Now we care. Now we can cheer for our heroine to get that job so she can buy those shoes. (This example shows us something clear about goals as well, but I’ll talk about that next month.)

The bottom line is motivation gives the reader a reason to care for the characters. It is one of the greatest tools we have as writers to make our imperfect characters that we love, loveable to other people.

Developing strong motivation forces you to think, to dig deep into your characters, and in the end it can be the difference between someone finishing your book, or putting it back on the shelves.

Robyn Ratliff has been a member of RWA since 1996. She currently serves as President and Webmaster to her RWA Chapter, San Antonio Romance Authors. She writes historicals set in Victorian England and is currently dividing her time between writing her next book and Agent Quest.

Copyright © 2007. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.

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