My critique partner writes in a totally different genre. And I do mean totally. With the exception of the fact that we both write romance, our paths in writing couldn’t be more different. When we first started our critique partnership, it was just an encouragement thing. After all, how much did we really know about each other’s chosen genres? And that’s not to mention the difference in our ages (no, I won’t tell) and experiential backgrounds.
Turns out, we knew quite a lot. Far more, in fact, than either of us ever expected, given our differences. From our first tentative steps into the unknown, we discovered that certain fundamentals can cross any genre line. One of the areas we’ve explored most deeply is motivation.
Most people pursuing writing have learned about Character Arcs, Story Arcs, GMC – Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and found individually unique ways to apply that information. But what my cp and I learned was that motivation, what I like to label as the ‘Big M’, is more than just a character push. It’s almost a character in itself.
Without the proper motivation, characters become 2-dimensional cookie-cutter stamps, masquerading as the people inhabiting an author’s head. With the right motivation, the characters come alive, so alive they live and breathe right along with us, and don’t stop talking even after the story ends.
But that doesn’t mean the motivation has to be complex, or convoluted. It just has to ring true in a profound and soul-touching way.
I like to style myself as a ‘Tolkienian’. I grew up in fervent awe of the brilliant mind behind the Lord of the Rings. And while those of my school-mates who were as ardent as I about the tale were ooh-ing and aah-ing over Aragorn, Legolas, and even Frodo, I was all about Sam. Samwise Gamgee, the stout-hearted hobbit whose sole purpose in life was service and love of his master Frodo.
Such a simple, yet profound, motivation. And Sam’s most basic nature asserted itself over and over again, throughout the story, interwoven through every scene in which Sam (or even a mention of him) appeared.
“Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”
Possibly the greatest motivational line ever written (IMHO). In this one sentence, Tolkien shows us the depth of Sam’s devotion to Frodo, his understanding of his own boundaries, and his unwavering determination to see things through to the bitter end.
When I was first trying to coach and encourage my cp, who was struggling with motivation, I kept thinking of this line. So I told her (and yes, she is a MAJOR Aragorn freak) and asked her to think it through. At first, she didn’t understand, because the motivation for Sam seemed to be too easy, too shallow. But as we worked through the novels bit by bit, covering each instance of Sam’s interactions, she could see the path. And eventually figured out how to ask deeper questions of her own characters. Not more complex questions, but deeper ones, ones that delved into the pits of the characters’ souls. Not always pretty, such discoveries, but they led her to a better understanding of what drove her characters to do what they did, no matter how simple or complex that motivation was.
So if you’re stuck fighting with 2-D characters, try looking at the time-worn and beloved characters we all have discovered through our reading, and parse their motivations, and follow them through out the tale. You might be surprised at what you uncover!