Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: June 16, 2002
Reposted on: June 13, 2004
Establishing motivation is a major part of
writing. What makes
characters, do the things they do?
I'm sure we have all seen stories (written
or filmed) where a
actions came out of nowhere. The plot called for something to happen,
what the character did. In real life, of course (and in good writing),
don't do things simply because we want them to.
So, what makes us (and our characters) act
or react as we do? No
non-trivial action will have a single cause or motivation: our actions
the result of multiple impulses, sometimes contradictory, sometimes in
agreement. Some of those motives are internal (greed, ambition,
generosity, and so on), some external, creating pressures and
opportunities. (Internal motives deal with character; external stimuli
drive the plot.)
Sometimes, even a minor event can trigger
a major reaction,
simply by occurring at the moment of greatest stress or opportunity.
an event may even provide simply a pretext for action: a violent man,
angry over some problem in his life, may take it out on an innocent
bystander who gave him the merest cause for offense.
As a simple example, consider the
car-buyer who carefully weighs
features, costs, and so on - then buys the red car because it
looks good. Did that impulse contradict all the research, or did it
break the deadlock between the various vehicles that did meet the
In a more serious example, there are many
tales of cowards
acts in wartime - perhaps simply because the fear grew so great that it
that person heroism. In this case, the inner need for self-preservation
with a highly dangerous situation to create an act that doesn't derive
either factor alone, but from the combination of the need and the
In fiction, we have the example of
Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled
performing great deeds and working as hard as any slave to preserve the
she firmly believes to be her own. The hardships did not make her a
person, but illustrated her priorities and her unwillingness to give up
mattered most to her.
A good article on motivations can be found
The exercise: in 500 words or less, show a
character acting, or
on at least one internal and one external motivation. Try to show
tell. The internal and external motives can support or contradict each
(each has different narrative effect.) Think about how the first can
action more logical; how the second can create more tension, and lead
unexpected (but not arbitrary) action, as in the case of the coward
in the example above.
When critiquing, describe the motivations
as you saw them, and how
they did (or didn't) contribute to the resulting action.
Send your submissions to the list today
through Friday with the
Subject: SUB: What drives you? [your name]
Critique each other's submissions (today
through Saturday) with
the subject heading:
Subject: CRIT: What drives you? [writer's name]
Would you like to discuss it? Use the
Subject: DISC: What drives you?
Want critiques on this exercise after the
exercise ends? Request
critiques with the subject header:
Subject: OFFER: What drives you? (Respondents must
The current and previous exercises are
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.