Writing Motivated Characters

Prose is a mixture of technique and artfulness. In my previous posts, I’ve felt confident enough to talk about aspects of the writing craft that are, in my view, technique oriented. Creating good characters, on the other hand, seems like an art form to me.  Let’s see if I can take the fun out of it and get technical!

turtle

Each writer has her own way of building characters, but we all share the same goal of making those literary creations authentic and interesting. Where to start? First I want to consider the major components of a character. I’m no expert, so feel free to add your thoughts or tell me what I missed:

1. History

2. Motivation (Today’s topic. I knew it would come up!)

3. Dialog

4. Action

In regard to history or backstory, many writers create bios of each character, especially for stories with complex family trees, royal bloodlines, or a multi-generational timeline. Others are comfortable with a general sense of their characters’ pasts. When it comes to dialog and action, our literary creations must say and do things that are consistent with who they are.

Which brings us to motivation. We, as writers, should ask ourselves what our heroes, villains, and supporting cast members want to accomplish. Although bit players can be purely functional, our stars must have objectives. Why write a story about them if they have nothing to do?

But is an external objective enough on its own to make someone real or interesting? Think about yourself. I’m sure you have goals, but you also have the push and pull of your intrinsic nature, which sometimes helps you and other times holds you back. For example, I know I am motivated to control outcomes, and I don’t like surprises. I relax like a turtle does a back stroke: Very poorly. On the other hand, I’m empathetic and see value in other perspectives. If you put me in a zombie apocalypse story, I’ll be the guy telling all the knuckleheads to calm down so we can make a survival plan in a logical, collaborative manner. I have a goal – to survive the zombie onslaught – and an intrinsic nature, which is to impose order and control while still respecting others’ views.

Here’s my formula for character motivation:

External motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature)

Internally, each of us is a cauldron of motivations that are often invisible to others. However,when the stakes are high, our intrinsic natures come to the fore. Going back to the zombie scenario, I can’t be the controlling guy with the diplomatic personality in one scene and the hysterical guy who loses his temper every five minutes in the next. A more plausible dynamic is for me to be frozen by inaction when I’ve imposed my plan but the zombies manage to breach the fortress anyway, since (warning: theme coming) efforts to control outcomes in life are ultimately futile. As I’m being devoured by the undead, perhaps I can say, “You know, I learned a valuable lesson here about living in the moment!”

Motivation: Find lunch

Motivation: Find lunch

Think about the people you know, dig below the surface, and imagine why they act the way they do. Have you ever met someone who puts people down to make up for her own lack of self-esteem? How about someone who tries too hard to please the boss because she needs validation as a human being and doesn’t know how to find it in herself? Combine those internal qualities, give the character an external goal (getting the heroine fired), and – voilà – you’ve got a secondary villain. The main villain is a serial killer hiding in the air ducts, by the way.

Here is a tiny sampling of intrinsic motivations that can be combined with others and, when coupled with an external goal, make one’s literary offspring more authentic:

Wanting to win at all costs and dreading failure. This character often makes the people around him miserable with all his ups and downs, and the world is all about him.

Striving to win approval and craving attention. This person may seek praise from authority figures and try to make others feel guilty. Passive aggressiveness, in other words.

Seeking variety and distraction. This character can get lost in what he’s doing and let people down who were counting on him.

Avoiding social interaction. No one knows what’s really going on behind her nerd glasses!

Assuming all people see things the way you do. He buys his wife a football. She wanted Sex and the City: Season 1 on DVD.

Trying to get everything done yesterday. She’s so wired, she makes the people around her tired just looking at her.

A character is bland if all he has is an external goal.  He needs dimensions. The next time our hero and his sidekick go on a quest to retrieve a magic sword, let’s make the hero a controlling, pushy type with no concern for others’ feelings, and depict the sidekick as an unassertive people-pleaser who gets walked on. The sidekick shouldn’t exist simply to help the hero find the sword. Give her a reason to overcome her anxieties and stand up for herself… even better if doing so is integral to the plot. While we’re at it, let’s teach the  hero a humbling lesson in empathy as he looks for that stupid sword.

On second thought, don’t make the sword stupid. People won’t want to read that.

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208 responses to “Writing Motivated Characters

  • ShannonRaelynn

    Excellent post. Motivation is so important to shaping characters. That is one nasty zombie

    • ericjbaker

      I swear I had a character motivation post lined up before I read yours the other day!
      ;)

      (the wink means you can’t get mad)

      Every time I need a zombie for this blog, which is more often than you’d think, I borrow one from The Walking Dead. You really can’t get better zombies.

      • DrFrood

        I prefer making my own zombies, right home, in the kitchen – so much better than store bought varieties.

        I use a great Martha Stewart recipe – go easy on the chicory, thoguh (I think she’s a little too heavy-handed)

        • ericjbaker

          I should try that. I bought Zombie Seeds online from one of those country-store catalog places, but I was very disappointed. They promised the zombies would be at least 5 feet tall, but most of them were more like 2 to 3 feet tall and couldn’t stand up on their own.

          Eh, maybe it’s the red-clay soil we’ve got around here. It’s rubbish for gardening.

        • DrFrood

          Red clay soil? No wonder you had difficulties! You want something with a more sandy base.

          But yes I’ve been stung by catalogues before – the Batman grew up to be a grape vine – makes a nice pinot noir, but it doesn’t fight crime. And don’t get me started on what I now call the rolling stones fiasco – literally covered in moss.

  • kristenotte

    Great thoughts about character motivation. I’m sure I’ll refer back to this post while writing.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s quite flattering. I know I’ve learned a lot about writing from your blog. In fact, your “what if” post helped me shape the concept for my current project.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  • nrhatch

    “You know, I learned a valuable lesson here about living in the moment!”

    Good tips! :D

  • Ben

    This being the first time I have stumbled upon your blog, you may have covered what I am about to say already – so, in the event you have, please accept by apologies.

    When I first started writing I would write huge character bios – I would detail their history, and write lists of their likes and dislikes – even ones that could have possible bearing on the story. I think I did this because I was a little afraid of making characters, because I wasn’t quite sure how to do it properly. Armed with all this overcompensating information I moved into writing the story – and found I knew absolutely nothing about the parts of the character that matters most.

    Relationships.

    A novel is about a cast of characters interacting with each other and the world – yes, even in the most plot driven of stories. I soon stopped creating ‘characters’, and started creating ‘relationships.’ For every character, I developed and fleshed their relationship with each other character – the nuances of how they talk to each other, how they react to each other. Characters had differing opinions on this or that, like or dislike each other, and so on. When it came to putting these ‘characters’ into practice on the page, I found I had a much stronger idea of how to write them – a much stronger idea of how they interact, and a much stronger idea of what they say. In short, through building the relationships between characters, I, by inference, built the character.

    Since making that discovery, I have completely stopped building characters and focused on building their relationships.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s a excellent approach I’ve never thought about. I really like your comment about creating characters through inference. I think my fiction works best when it writes itself (meaning I don’t think and just let my fingers push the keys). I’m sure that works when it comes to letting the character’s happen based on their interactions with each other as well.

      Thanks for the comment and the insight.

    • Janna G. Noelle

      I like this emphasis on relationships. It reminds me of a really useful quote I once read in a writing how-to book:

      “The story’s plot is the synthesis of its individual characters’ plots.”

      Every character is the hero of his/her own story, even if that’s not the story you’re currently telling. As you said, it’s the collision of all these different (and in some cases, incompatible) goals and motivations each character has that colours these relationships.

      • L. Palmer

        This is similar to how I build characters. When starting my latest draft, I spent a few days going through a list of each major character and writing 1. their backstory, 2. Their relationship and opinion of all the other major characters and 3. What they wanted over the course of the story.
        It has been a great resource, and, I believe, made a stronger story.

        • ericjbaker

          I like your idea of writing early drafts without knowing too much about the characters. Just let them tell you who they are and then fill in the details. It sounds like a good method.

          I hope I adequately captured your approach with that explanation.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Characters are like jacked up version of real people: their motivations are clear and their actions and attitudes (or intrinsic natures, to use your term) are unwaveringly consistent and foreseeable in a way that real people almost never are. I like your focus on intrinsic nature, though, for it does play an important role. Two characters could both want the very same thing equally badly, but go about it in two completely different ways in accordance with the differing natures.

    • ericjbaker

      If literary characters were as flaky and inconsistent as we are in real life, readers would have a hard time latching on to them, wouldn’t they?

      Still, I have a hard tiame getting into characters who have this one-dimensional drive to fulfill their character destiny and don’t give any hint as to whether they are shy, outgoing, assertive, creative, impulsive, etc.

  • Arkenaten

    I’ve never had the balls to offer any advice on writing, other than take hold of a pen and paper (or electronic equivalent) and begin to write. Once upon a time is always a good opener.

    If I can steal advice from wherever then I reckon it can only enhance and enrich my own work.

    Donaldson created a masterpiece in his character, Thomas Covenant.
    One of the few literary characters I have consistently wanted to laud on one page then throttle on the next and I’ll bet this sentiment was shared by millions who read Donaldson’s ‘Chronicles’ novels.
    I prefer my characters to be uncomplicated.
    Eat, drink get laid, go someplace, get laid again if they are lucky, find treasure and come home again. Easy,peasy and no problems with angst to deal with and no readers wondering if such and such a character is based on the author. ;)

    • ericjbaker

      In my latest story, the handsomest, tallest, bravest, most compassionate, most intelligent character is based on the author. It’s a true story about the time I went to Mars and compared myself favorably to rocks.

      I have the balls to offer advice on writing for two reasons:

      1. I figure that no one is going to remember what I write two days later, anyway. If they think my advice is worthless, they’ll forget it all the sooner. If it helps someone, great. I learn things from other bloggers all the time, even if they aren’t “accomplished” from a publishing standpoint.

      2. Criticism doesn’t hurt my feelings. If someone thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about, they are free to say so in the comments. They may be correct, too.

      Actually, you gave some pretty good writing advice the other day. Something about not shouting profanity into the next room when you don’t know who’s in there.
      ;)

  • Jill Weatherholt

    This is a very informative post, Eric. “A character is bland if all he has is an external goal. He needs dimensions.” I’ve read many books where the characters were like a plain, unsalted rice cake. I try to make my characters active, rather than reactive. I try not to just make terrible things happen that cause them to react. I have them make decisions and act, doing things that put them into messes and then show the struggle to get out of the mess.

    • ericjbaker

      I know what you mean. In some novels and stories, it’s as if the character never existed prior to page one. Surely he picked up some trait or interest or belief before the giant robots attacked.

  • Uzoma

    A very helpful post, Eric. I agree it’s very important for us to ‘meet’ our story characters before the writing begins. Like real people, they have their way of thinking and behavior. Outside that, I think a stupid sword is the prize lol.

  • tsuchigari

    Hiya Eric – You’ve got a great discussion going on, woohoo! Honestly, I’ve read great characters and I’ve read crappy ones but the best ones are the ones that have struggles that I can relate to. One of the many reasons Harry Potter was successful is because he felt as if he never fit in – who doesn’t resonate with that?

  • Uzoma

    Oh my! Thank you for such a heart-warming remark. Doubt is still my biggest challenge.

  • katetillie

    I love this post! Great opening for discussion.

  • feejohnson

    Good advice! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Being June

    I clicked “Like” because that zombie made me jump out of my skin. Then I read the post, which is awesome. Motivation is so tough to get right, to get believable. You offer some great advice. Thanks for scaring the daylights out of me.

    • ericjbaker

      Good old Walking Dead. The last word on what zombies look like.

      Thanks for reading and I’m happy if you are able to stir a bit of my writing advice into your work. I know I’ve picked up a lot of great advice from other WordPress bloggers.

  • indiegirlblogs

    I needed to read this! I’m in the process of trying to develop characters for my story and I have to say I’m a little overwhelmed.

    • ericjbaker

      I figure I can just throw everything at the page in my first draft and fine-tune the characters in revision. At least I hope. My current project has far more characters than I’m used to writing, so I worry about the same person showing up twice with different names. I have to careful to avoid POV drift and really stick to the main few.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Lizzie Roe

    Great tips! I always wonder if I develop and motivate my characters enough! I was mainly intrigued as to the purpose of the zombie image in the post… lunch is always good motivation, so good in fact it’s made me hungry.

  • 5thingstodotoday

    I really like your blog and would love you to guest post on my, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com site. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

  • rami ungar the writer

    I immediately flashed on my own serial killer character as I was reading this post, his goals in hunting the mafia and why he’s doing it, both internally and externally, along with the complex character history he has. Thanks for a great read.

  • Shawn Bailey

    I like the way you split up motivation. The direction and the reason for the direction. Without the reason, the goal is shallow.

    • ericjbaker

      I don’t know if my execution is 100% successful, but I hope at least to create characters who aren’t doing things simply because I told them to.

      Thanks for the comment and the thought.

  • FyaLight

    Magnificent advice. Thank you for being my sidekick in a quest to overcome literary struggles

  • elenacarpi

    Great article and interesting blog. This article is perfectly timed, since I have been looking back on my own manuscript and working on adding depth to the characters. The first time around I was just writing by the seat of my pants as you called it in another post, but now I am looking back and evaluating each character, their principle traits and motivations. Thanks for the advice and I look forward to reading more.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad there is such a thing as second, third, and fourth drafts, and so on. Sometimes it takes that many passes before I realize a certain character would never say the words I gave her.

  • fallonstoeffler

    Excellent post. I’ve been thinking a lot about motivations lately, especially readdressing characters I’ve written. I think people in general need to understand that you cannot have a character totally motivated by only ONE factor. Even the bad guys. Unless it’s a total farce, or it’s a Marvel comics supervillain, no one walks into toddler playgroup at the age of three and says “I am motivated by evil. I desire nothing but world domination.”
    I also like the idea of not creating characters that do something because “you told them to” (from an above comment.) I love it when characters take me by surprise and I let it go the direction it needs, and you can definitely tell when a person is steering a character in the direction they want them to be for the reasons they’ve made up…and this to me is where it comes up feeling contrived and puppeted. Thanks for the great post!

    • ericjbaker

      I think I said this in response to a prior comment, but I totally agree that villains must have depth. My favorite bad guys are the ones who make a good point. They might go about achieving their goals in a bad way, but sometimes their objective isn’t necessarily bad.

  • mynamesnotannie

    Fell for the “cool” button stunt. Touché, salesman.
    Excellent post though. Glad I fell for it.

  • dederants

    Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe and commented:
    Should use those four steps for every character I write, because going into their complete biography and backstory is awfully frightening! I know I don’t need to include it in the story or get that far into characters, but the little things about writing can be so damn daunting! Thank you for this post :-D

  • MojoFiction

    Just found your blog Mr. Baker. Looks like a found a good article to start with, what with all the discussion. I’ve found that I tend to create a main character first, with a narrow focus (like a personality quirk or a strange job or whatnot), then I throw a situation at them and see what happens. Often I get away from that situation entirely, but the time I spend writing about it shapes the character, usually leads to the larger story, and develops motivations organically based on where things are going. But if I don’t find that motivation, things tend to dead-end.

  • Charles Dickey

    I’m struggling with developing compelling characters, so this post is quite timely for me. Some good thoughts here about motivation, and I think I’ll put your formula to use as I begin to be more deliberate in planning my stories.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m glad if something I’ve picked up along the way is helpful to you. I think you can start out with some basic personality traits like shyness, being short-tempered, or being intolerant, and see how that plays out in the scenario you’ve created for them. If characters start out as perfect humans or as blanks, there’s nowhere for them to go, development-wise.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • allthoughtswork

    Man, WordPress rocks. The original poster is like the neon sign outside the bar that draws you into the real party: the comments section. The ultimate twenty minute cure for writer’s block is perusing the musings.

    I second the relationships tactic. I spend an inordinate amount of time just watching my characters interact with one other in my head before I ever touch a keyboard. It’s like the silent version of the Blutooth Invisible Conversation phenomenon you witness on the street, but no fees.

    For occasional fun and practice, I insert a real-time event from my life or the news into their world and see what they do with it. After awhile, they become so familiar that I trust them to direct the story. They really do write themselves.

  • VarVau

    This is a great breakdown of character building. Motivation is the first thing I consider when forming a character. Depending on what type they are results in the decision to, or to not, make a bio. I may highlight certain events in their life and let the rest be filled by natural interaction.

    A particularly curious sort of character to watch this happen with are those who have amnesia at the beginning of the story. They don’t tell you their history. You have to walk with them to discover who they really are and why they do what they do. At times, it can be like another person living inside your head. Their situation and reaction to that situation can also lead to that character deciding which route the story goes in order to get to a decided outcome.

    I try to let them live within boundaries, but sometimes they break them and at other times they tell me what is best for moving forward (often this works better than the original plan).

  • Charles Dickey

    I’m a fan of role-playing games, and I’ve often thought of using character sheets to develop my characters — but have avoided the practice until now. My tactic before was to let the story and characters develop “organically” as I wrote, but it’s become clear to me that this is a poor strategy for crafting a story. Tonight I am creating a template based off of The Window rpg character sheet, and I thought I’d share a link to that game’s website because it presents some excellent techniques and questions to ask while building characters. This is a section called “Tips and Tricks”, but you can use the menus to explore further: http://www.mimgames.com/window/characters/tips.html

  • pezcita

    Aristotle’s Poetics (or at least the condensed version that I read) said that character is the soul of any comic work, which really puts me up a creek when it comes to writing a comic strip. So much to say, yet so little space to write dialog! I’ve always though the history bit was important too. http://pezcita.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/the-peace-offering/

    • ericjbaker

      My hat is off to you for doing comic strips. I’ve tried it once or twice and just didn’t have whatever it takes.

      Most things are harder to do than they look. From my perspective, comic strips fit that description well. You need good characters, the ability to tell a story in few words and with limited space, artistic skill, and comic timing.

      Keep up the good work!

  • Theresa Wright

    Great tips on character development, I will be referring back to this post.

  • Storm

    You know, a great example of character motivation can be seen in, dun dun dun, the show Lost. The flashbacks give you reasonings behind why the characters act the way they do in the situtation of being on a magical island with a weird smoke monster that travels through time. This just popped into my head when I was reading about your intrinsic motivations. I am the type of character that hopes to just be a zombie when the zombie apocalypse happens. So. My character motivation would be eating brains with no frontal lobe action to have intrinsic motivations.

  • elarte79

    This is an excellent post, sir. Kudos.

  • A.R.

    Helpful article! The main criticism that I always get is that none of my characters are worth investing in. They always seem to be either one or two dimensional figures that are destined to die at some point.

    • ericjbaker

      What kind of fiction do you write? If you do sci-fi or fantasy, I think there’s a greater risk of having characters there to serve the concept. Good characters are ones that can be removed from one genre and be placed in another and still work as characters.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • A.R.

        Good point. I write speculative fiction, which is the umbrella term for fantasy/horror/sci-fi. I’ll keep this in mind for my next project. Thanks for the tip.

      • Charles Dickey

        That’s an interesting point, Eric. My favored genre is fantasy, and my love for it stems from the settings that these stories are told in, rather than the characters that populate those settings. My own struggles with character development and storytelling are similar to what A.R. describes and very much related to your insight that characters “serve the concept”. In my writing, I consistently use my characters as tools to reveal the setting to the reader, which makes my writing quite different from a traditional narrative story with a strong plot. Rather than excuse my writing style with my love of place/setting, I realize that I need to work to create compelling stories within those settings that people will want to read. While my primary motivation in writing remains world-building over character development, in order to be published and read, I have to work on presenting compelling characters confronting problems within the worlds I create.

        This is a bit of me thinking out loud, so disregard the ramble if it seems self-indulgent; however, if anyone reading this can relate, please respond… I would love to connect with others who have a similarly problematic approach to writing stories that people will want to read.

        • ericjbaker

          Ramble away!

          I think, even in a fantastic world (and my hat is off to you for being able to create worlds), I still think the readers needs to connect with the character. Compare the old Star Wars movies to the newer ones. Despite the outlandish setting, we can feel Luke Skywalker’s plight. Who hasn’t taken a look around at their day-to-day environment and not yearned for something more exciting and meaningful? Meanwhile, I’ve never served on a Jedi Council or hired clones to fight a war against robots and bug monsters. so I’ll just sit back and watch the pretty lights in that case.

        • Charles Dickey

          Exactly. While I may be endlessly delighted by the fact that the planet has 8 moons and that different types of magic are related to each moon, not many people want to read a picaresque description of the night sky on a certain evening and a discussion of the arcane energies available for use. This could be important information for the writer, depending on the story being told, but its too static, belongs in the background. For a story I need not only the moon information and the details of a city, but a young woman trying to escape the prejudices of her native town, only to arrive in the city in time for a seasonal influx of destructive mana that brings crazed warlock serial killers down from ruins and into the city to harvest organs.

  • Matthew Wright

    It’s remarkably difficult to create believeable characters – and to then render all the layered complexity of that human condition down to the single linear thread that is writing. Motivation, it seems to me, is an excellent way of winnowing the mix. Cool post – thanks for sharing.

    • ericjbaker

      the challenge for me is how much information to provide. I try to tell as much about the character through dialog and action (and reaction and interaction) as possible, but I’ve had some beta readers tell me I need a bit more detail.

      It’s a tough balance for sure!

  • chorionstar

    Reblogged this on ein Löffel des Zuckers ♥ and commented:
    this is good reference :D

  • artist.impressionist

    If you want to be a writer for tv/film learn from the master Rod Serling.

    Watch the Rod Serling videos, I posted at dailymotion, there are 16

    http://www.dailymotion.com/painter_landscapes#video=xmrgjg

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for posting the link and talking up Rod Serling. I’m a fan too.

      I have a request, though: If you are going to leave responses to comments on someone else’s blog, please be more courteous and supportive. Feel free to leave a comment diagreeing with something I’ve said in my post, but I prefer to do the responding to readers.

      Thanks again!

  • bipolaronfire

    Is someone who is “striving to win approval and craving attention’ automatically a passive aggressive person? I don’t get that connection. Since I somewhat fall in that category and don’t see myself as passive-aggressive, I had to ask :P

  • awesomemetilda

    There is at least five words that i didnt understand but it was a wondeful post. Thank you very much for sharing this. You have an odd humor and that is very interesting. It was fun reading this post and the last line made me laugh.

  • Elli Writes

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “dimensions”. Strong characters need to be multifaceted. Background/history, strengths, weaknesses, motivations, are all cards that play into a character’s personality and make them who they are.

    Great post!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! The trickiest thing to balance is giving the character weaknesses without making him weak. I like to write characters who are borderline unlikable at first but grow on you, though I’m not sure I always get it right.

  • Amy Kriewaldt

    I’m a novice to the writing world, and terrible at fiction (non-fic is my thing) but I found this so fascinating, insightful and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write this out and share it!

  • jenny

    Excellent post! I’ve always enjoyed writing but am constantly learning new technique and developing my skills. This post definitely gave me some insight. Thank you so much!

  • ghostgrrl007

    Reblogged this on RolePlayWriter and commented:
    Intrinsic nature is one of the most overlooked aspect of creating characters. It’s amazing how many people know what their characters want to accomplish without having a clue about what drives them to do so.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for reblogging and for commenting.

      I think it’s just a development step we all have to go through. It’s like filming a movie: You can point the camera at the actors while they act, or you can block out your shots, get good close-ups, change angles for dramatic impact, etc. all while maintaining pace and proper screen direction. It takes time and practice.

      • ghostgrrl007

        Thanks and I agree, up to a point. There are certain “mechanics” to creating characters that can be taught and digging deeper into their motivation is one of them. The art, to me, lies in bringing them to life. I’ve created amazing, high quality characters that have fallen flat when added to a story and flat characters intended just as filler or fodder (not even secondary characters) who have become so real they’ve taken stories over. But I’m a firm believer in the adage “You have to know what the rules are before you can break them” and motivation, especially intrinsic nature is one of those “rules” few seem to know these days.

        • ericjbaker

          Your latter comment seems especially true of the suspense/thriller genre. There are an awful lot of serial killers running around out there who just do it because the writer said so.

  • Creating Good Characters – Tropes and Relationships « The Chronosphere

    [...] a week ago blogger ‘ericjbaker’ posted an article called ‘Writing Motivated Characters,’ on his blog, found by clicking the name. It is a good read, and I recommend you go take a look [...]

  • grizyeti

    I loved this post. It digs down into our bedrock of creating characters and helps people see why we must make them lovable or the opposite.

    I recently read a book that talked of how writers have this need to make their characters ‘perfect’. In that they act like a bad guy should, or a good guy should. But in real life, we change our minds on a dime, and make whip-snap decisions. I took from that to try and create some characters that are very random in their actions. The reader can still tell who is good and bad, but they drift closer to grey and act very human.

    Thank you a bunch for sending this out there.

  • grizyeti

    Reblogged this on Grizz-Tion and commented:
    Excellent post on a writer’s motivation behind their characters.

  • seedofbilly

    Great post, nominating you for a Versatile Blogger Award, keep up the good work :)

  • koalaraptor

    I don’t care what anyone says: Character is way more important than plot, or even setting. i would watch a movie with no plot in a white room if the character was intriguing enough.

    • ericjbaker

      Interesting. I’ve seen a few responses to this piece on other blogs today and the opinions run from one end to the other when it comes to character vs. plot. I’m not sure where I stand. I suppose if one aspect is amazing, it can compensate for a shortcoming in the other.

      Love your screen name, by the way!

  • chunkychambers

    Really enjoyed reading this. I’m currently adapting a story for a short film and it’s always nice for people to acknowledge the effort and depth of persona which you have to go to before you even begin to flesh out the plot.

    • ericjbaker

      Sounds cool. Is this something you’re making for a film festival, for film class, or something you intend to post online?

      (I’m sure there are other destinations for short films, but I only have a minute to write this comment)

      Adapting a written story for a visual medium might make for an interesting dscussion.

  • chunkychambers

    It is going towards my studies but I have had some interest from a friend who makes short films so may make it to a film festival. If not I will probably look to post it online and see what sort of response it gets.

    • ericjbaker

      Please come back and let us know if you post it online. I made a couple of short films in college but never pursued it (mostly from lack of time and funds), but I’m interested in hearing about what you had to do to adapt it.

  • Jase

    Thanks for this. I haven’t the time right now to read all of the comments, but this was interesting. I would like to write fiction, so its always good to get advice. I like your formula. Anyway, what i really wanted to say was have a look at this book, Brilliant NLP: Manage Your Emotions, Think Clearly and Enjoy Life. There are some nice little sections in there that describe personality traits. Before anyone flames me, I am not advocating NLP here, I am merely pointing out some interesting content in this book that is pertinent to your formula for motivated characters.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve read some good books on thinking, reasoning mistakes, emotion vs. logic, and so on, and I agree that they can be helpful for understanding human nature. And, by extension, character motivation.

      Good luck on your fiction writing endeavors.

  • jimceastman

    This is very insightful. Thanks for sharing your tips about character motivation. I have a great time reading your post at the same time loving it. So true that understanding every characters and learn how to motivate them help every writing to be interesting! This is worth the read. Wonderful post!

  • R. Hans Miller

    Well said. I like to think of a character like I’m cooking. Without something to savor (such as motivation) there would be no flavor to the dish, and the diners are sure to be disappointed.

  • Thea Christie

    This is really well articulated – It’s surprising actually how many writers can’t either instinctively or logically get this right!

    • ericjbaker

      Thank you. Perhaps because it’s harder to teach than some of the more mechanical aspects of writing? I think empathy might have something to do with it as well. An empathetic person can relate to others without necessarily agreeing with what they do or what they believe. If you can’t see other perspectives, it’s probably difficult to depict characters as having varying viewpoints.

  • emvita15

    Such fresh ideas, thanks for sharing. My mind is at standstill for new creations, how do you collect inspiration?

    • ericjbaker

      Sometimes I think about other interests outside of writing and then ask myself how I can turn it into a story. Other times I imagine conversations between two lovers or strangers see what ideas my mind throws out. Often it’s just a word or phrase that appears in my head that intrigues me.

      A blogger friend once suggested pulling a random novel from the shelf, copying the first full sentence on page 90, and then the first full sentence on page 40 (the page numbers don’t matter; it’s the concept) and then writing a story that connects them.

  • maylamar

    Thanks for an insightful post, Eric. “Sitting on an embarrassing secret” would be one for your list. I’m new around here so I appreciate coming across something I can use. Best to you.

    • ericjbaker

      That is a good suggestion. Taking a character who is already got something on his mind and then placing him in a higher-stakes situation where that knowledge may be important.

      Thanks for the insight. I’ve gotten enough ideas from suggestions in these comments to make a second post on the subject.

  • Missandei

    Very well written and very true! The part about getting eaten was very funny, but not too much and that makes it even better :)

  • mailn6

    Excellent article, well written! This is really where I’m weakest with my own prose, so anything helps out – and you did, perfectly. Almost died upon hearing your last words, by the way.

    Cheers!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! I hope you almost died because it was funny, not because your novel is about a stupid sword and I ruined your confidence. I know very little about swords, and a stupid one might be just what readers are clamoring for.
      ;)

  • ProSona

    Sometimes we are inspired from the people in our life to create a cool monster

  • Nautilus Shell

    Thanks for this. I’ve got a passive aggressive character in the pipe and it’s good to see he’s legit!

  • generaltechdocs

    I feel that the intrisic mortivators are changing slightly with time and the effect is more or less monotonous and the external mortivtors are more effective and more entusiastic. When the iron is beaten and beaten, it get sharper and sharper.

  • moodsnmoments

    this is brilliant stuff. often a writer friend of mine has told me the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ but i’ve hardly found success in implementing it. the motivation theme is another way of bringing a 3D aspect to the cardboard hero. thank you for the fab tips. congrats on being freshly pressed.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the kind words! I believe “showing” becomes easier when the character’s responses are emotion-driven rather than task-driven. Describing physical action can be tedious when we don’t know why the character is going through those motions.

  • lythya

    I think it would be pretty hilarious to have a stupid sword.
    Oh! A PHEASANT IN MY GARDEN (It’s true!)

    A lot of excellent points. When I prepare for the editing proces of my current project I’ll go through each character and recognize external and internal goals!

    • ericjbaker

      I’m really starting to warm to the idea of a stupid sword. I hope someone takes up the challenge.

      Now that I’ve written all this about motivation, I have to make sure I do the same thing in my own fiction. Talking about it is easier than doing sometimes.

  • justjoshuaj

    Good stuff sir, will you or have you posted anything on dialogue? That’s the one part I tend to struggle with when writing a screenplay. But great post, sir!

  • pfaff123

    As a film student I am always looking to see how I can make my characters more dynamic. To break it down to motive and actions is a good way to do so. I personally have never done the bio of the characters before I start writing the script but i have heard that is a very effective way of doing things. Very good article I will refer to this page for my next character development.

    • ericjbaker

      The other dimension you have to work with is what the actor brings to the part. Film making has that collaborative element missing from fiction writing (until you find an editor and publisher, but that’s still different).

      If any of your film projects end up online, please come back and let us know! I’d like to check it out.

  • zcarstheme

    Brilliant post. I really, really want to read about the stupid sword, though.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m going to have to write a “stupid sword” story, aren’t I?

      Thanks for the comment!

      • nedkelly944

        There is no such thing as a stupid question there is only a stupid answer! Charles M Schuz in Peanuts. Linus ‘It is easier to light a single candle than it is to curse the darkness’ Lucy ‘Stupid darkness!’. There has to be a stupid sword somewhere in that analogy. ‘I was stuck in that stone for centuries, I know I got it wrong but you have to forgive me. Remember my age, I wasn’t to know what an asswipe is!’

  • Jacqui Reed

    Enjoyed the blog.Thanks for sharing it.

  • cross7009

    You did take the fun out of it….. But you did provide a good starting point. I particularly like the equation

  • Lipstick and Chaos

    where to start … certainly not with a capital W but that’s me, making my own rules; my own way. Loved this post – stumbled upon it as I was reading the Freshly Pressed page. Ironically – the combination of character building verses humanity in daily life struck me as quite funny. I read your prose about “building dimensions” and couldn’t help but think of those in my own life you just described.
    Writing is an art, and we draw from life and I thought this post was brilliant enough (as a struggling writer) to share on FB and reblog on my page!
    Thanks! I really needed that!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! Or “thanks,” if you prefer lower case. Hey, it works for kd lang. Who am I to argue with someone who has a pitch-perfect voice?

      I, too, am a struggling writer. So, from one to another, I glad if something I said on the subject of writing was helpful to one of my brothers or sisters.

      Thanks for reblogging!

  • David Rieckmann

    Reblogged this on Indie Authors and Books and commented:
    Writing Motivated Characters by Eric John Baker

    • ericjbaker

      What I said to the previous reblogger: Sorry for my delay in responding. I had a coupl eof posts in a row that ended up with more comments than I expected and a few got lost.

      Thanks so much for sharing the message David!

  • We’re experiencing technical difficulties | Cassandra Bellinger

    [...] Writing Motivated Characters (ericjohnbaker.wordpress.com) [...]

    • ericjbaker

      Sorry about my failure to reply sooner. I’m beating around the excuse that I was not prepared to handle the volume of comments this piece drew. Hopefully you will accept it.

      Thank you so much for sharing the message with others.

  • shanesbookblog

    Love your Blog and i love this Post! Motivation is Key when writing a new novel or book and creating characters. I Am a new Writer and i am just now discovering how important motivation actually is in all aspects of writing! I Appreciate your work and thanks so much for sharing this so other writers especially new ones like me can learn a thing or two! ~I Liked and Followed/subscribed to your blog , you certainly deserve much more for your hard work and for helping new and aspiring writers like myself!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’ve found the writers on WordPress to be incredibly supportive of me, so I hope to pay it forward.

      Best of luck with all your writing endeavors!

  • The Monthly Music Review “FULL BLOWN CRANIUM” | Creative Interests

    […] recognized Eric’s Blog, named “Clawing at the Keys,” spotlighting it on their prestigious “Freshly pressed,” list of notable […]

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  • Weekend Essay: Is the Great Classic Movie Dead? | The Viewing Tank

    […] Eric John Baker gave a simple but effective formula: external motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature). This gives you recognizable characters that can be built on as the movie progresses. Great performances can also elevate archetypal characters. Nebraska is a very simple film but it has a amusing characters. Drive is an art house film that requires a long attention span, but its an interesting character study. […]

  • Weekend Essay: Is the Great Classic Movie Extinct? | The Viewing Tank

    […] Eric John Baker gave a simple but effective formula: external motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature). This gives you recognizable characters that can be built on as the movie progresses. Great performances can also elevate archetypal characters. Nebraska is a very simple film but it has a amusing characters. Drive is an art house film that requires a long attention span, but its an interesting character study. […]

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