October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation


copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? I’ve previously shared these two:

But Tuesday I came across another blog with a challenge near to my goals this year: character motivation.

In her 10/14 post, “Making Motivation Matter,” Writerlious blogger E. B. Pike shares insights and an exercise she gained from a Writers Block conference she attended in Louisville. Follow link to her post to read her full explanation of the challenge as presented to her in a workshop. I can’t resist trying it here.

The challenge (quoted from the Writerlious blog):

1.) Write down your character’s name

2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible

3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?

4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.

5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.

6.) You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

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Of all my characters, Michael Roonan is most likely to meet the bar of high stakes motivation. Let’s see:

  1. Michael Roonan.
  2. Roonan wants: the happiness his parents had.
  3. He cannot get what his parents had because of a tragedy he witnessed that caused him to take a life in self-defense, as a boy.  If he did not get over the tragedy, he would just grow up in isolation. Not yet a big stake.
  4. That violent act caused him to become alienated in fear.  He isolated himself to protect those around him but a loyal friend tried to rescue him.. Once the friend is involved, stakes are raised, as he is now focused on extricating the friend from guilt, beyond any hope of extricating himself.
  5. In an effort to correct the problem, he upheld his father’s paranoia about needing to protect the family and avoid violence. But the more he sought to avoid violence, the more he escalated it, and two members of his family are killed. Stakes raised twice: believing in his father’s integrity and lives lost.
  6. His involvement in violence is exonerated as “self-defense” — yet he becomes increasingly aware of his own flawed perceptions, so that his innocence or damnation hinges on whether his father’s values and paranoia were accurate. Stakes raised: loss of innocence, loss of faith, damnation. Against these, Roonan sees death as easy.
  7. At the moment Roonan judges himself damned, resigned to death, he is confronted by the unexpected birth of his own son — now faced once again with his original wish: for the simple happiness of family.

I’m not surprised to have full stakes for Roonan, but am curious to run the same test on the female protagonist, Carinne, as development of her character has been my focus in recent revisions:

  1. Carinne
  2. (Should I be honest and say I stalled out to even say what she wants?) Initially, for herself: love, acceptance.
  3. If she did not get love or acceptance for herself, she might just withdraw into herself. No big deal. She’s in company with half the planet, perhaps. Not yet a story.
  4. She then meets Michael Roonan. They are kindred in resignation to their individual isolation. Seeing it in each other, they fight to keep the other afloat. She begins to rebel against her own resignation, at the same time she becomes accomplice in his escape from the man pursuing him. She becomes a part of a mission to keep the man safe, which essentially parallels her own need to fight for herself. Story spark.
  5. She has fallen in love. There is the moment when things could turn and go well, but then Roonan is killed.  She believes he survived, but is told he died and she is sent out of the country.  At this point, it is interesting, but as far as her motivation, it’s still kind of “so what?” – she could move on with a new love, I suppose. He could be the exciting bad boy that got away – but not necessarily high stakes.
  6. She is pregnant and has a child (the first pages open with that child digging in her garden). She had been willing to give up on finding Roonan for herself, but won’t give up once it’s a matter of finding her son’s father. Stakes are raised the day he comes home asking who he’s supposed to take to the daddy party at nursery school. Ding!
  7. Once Roonan is found, the son’s need for his father to survive and be part of his life provokes the resolution, as living happily is at odds with the father’s need for atonement.

What a great exercise for identifying where motivation is clear and where it is still pedestrian.  I love romantic motivation, but am suspicious of it as the sole motivator, so had been questioning Carinne for some time. She is compelling, but not if her only motivation is loving Roonan.

What’s interesting in breaking it down is it pinpoints a truth I caught last spring: Carinne is not the real protagonist; the son is.  Carinne is essentially a stand-in for the son for much of the story.  While we might be moved by a love story, the son’s need for a father trumps the mother’s romantic motivation.  It is the son’s desire (and mother’s desire for his well being) that drives the story.  Once I hone in on that, how easy are the questions to answer.  What does the son want? A father. What will happen if he doesn’t get it? Parallel to the tragedy already modeled by the dad: questions of his manhood, his integrity, his identity, his worth. Resolution of that one desire addresses the needs and desires of his parents, as well.

*    *     *     *     *

I applied Writerlious’s list to a finished draft, but a key point as it was presented to her in workshop is to take the time to define your characters and their motivation before starting to write.  For all those of you contemplating NaNoWriMo next month, this is perfect time to do just that!

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October is only halfway done! Jump in on one of these challenges, or share your own questions for developing story.

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14 Comments

Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

14 responses to “October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation

  1. Great work. I’ve definitely got a string of characters that need this kind of close inspection. The neat thing about the way you (and Writerlious) have approached this is that is doesn’t become a formula–no pushing the characters into the sausage maker. It’s just a way to examine them for who and what they are and could be. I will be linking to this post on my own blog in the near future.

    • elissa field

      Thanks, Jack. I see you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo? This kind of pre-thinking is so useful, to know the direction characters are going. I’m off to check out your post on opening lines. I did a workshop on openings in May, and they carry so much weight. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. I’m glad to see how this played out for you, Elissa. I read E.B.’s post, too, and copied this exercise. I haven’t gotten to it yet (I’m doing the memoir challenge during October), but I’m starting to work on a new book, and the characters need a good dose of making matters worse! So thanks to E.B. for passing on what she learned, and to you for sharing how this is working for you! Good stuff.

    • elissa field

      Aren’t there some great challenges going this month, Gerry? I didn’t even dare take on the memoir challenge, although I may go back and apply it in another month. We should share the link here.

      BTW, I have to get this email off to you — as soon as I get done with end of quarter grading today. Sorry it has taken so long. There are 8th grade science fair research papers to blame for that = the first time grading has made me question my chosen profession. Ugh! But will be done with them today…

  3. Pingback: What’s your motive? A closer look at character motivation. | Jack Frey

  4. Hi Elissa, here’s a link to my post examining a character using the steps you list here. Very useful!

    http://jackfrey.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/whats-your-motive-a-closer-look-at-character-motivation/#comments

    –Jack

    • elissa field

      Great – I’m glad you shared the link! I think my characters envy the fun scene Jack wrote to act out EB’s list.

  5. Hi Elissa, I enjoyed reading your post. Great work.

    • elissa field

      Thanks, Diane. I see from your blog that you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo in November – good luck with the new story!

  6. Veronica Roth

    Wow Elissa, that’s a lot of undertsanding of your characters. Good for you to break it down like that; it must really help to write their story.

    • elissa field

      Thanks, Veronica. I’d been mulling over thoughts like this since a workshop last spring when it was asked differently: to keep pushing by asking the question “what if…?” Character development has really captivated me these last months.

  7. Oh, what we put our poor characters through in the name of a good story! Bring on the red suit and pitch folk. Halloween is just around the corner… and it is for art’s sake. :)

  8. Love love love this exercise. Thanks for sharing your results so honestly. I may have to “borrow” this for some MC investigation of my own.

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