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characters and motivations

One of the many things that has come out of the past few weeks has been the consideration of motivation, both in real life and in fiction. People react and act because of a variety of motivations, often subject to the whims of more than one over-riding driver. These can be complimentary, contradictory and be born out of a range of other factors and motivations which are more deep-seated, unrecognised and whose interactions and tensions can form complex webs of influence and consequence. And yet these motivations can often result in actions that are at odds with what you would expect.

Any example of real life conflict will demonstrate this, if you are able to stand back and view it as objectively as possible. People appear to complex, operating under the aforementioned tensions which can be very simple in both nature and cause, yet their interaction leads to misunderstood complexity. What you see is not necessarily the why and the what, other factors may (and this is only a may) lurk beneath surface, driving an interaction and reaction with the world that may seem comprehensible and incomprehensible, depending upon what you know of that person's nature.

A lot of fiction beautifully captures this tension, sometimes detailed, more often than not hinted at and painted. The reader brings his or her own interpretation to the character, based on the information given; behaviours, actions, internal and external dialogue, etc. The more detailed that exposition the more likely the reader will become polarised for or against the character, whilst a balanced light touch may risk a lack of empathic hooks but allow a greater deal of freedom in fitting that character into the reader's world view (as part of the reader-writer dialogue that the novel/story forms).

As an aspiring writer it is interesting to hear how established authors develop characters, Iain M Banks and Joe Abercrombie both start with minimal characterisation and this develops within the story. Others start with a clear vision of the characters and the story develops as a dialogue between those characters and the plot.

At the recent BristolCon Building Fabulous Worlds panel Roz Clarke used the example of Perdido Street Station (from the book of the same name by China Mieville) as an example of an inanimate object that projects a brooding, menacing, implacable character (my words, she simply stated that it has a character of its own, with which I wholeheartedly agree). Worlds can have character, as can places, and these are amplified by both the characters' views of those places as much as the reader's, and Perdido Street Station perfectly reflects this. Its character is both defined by its function and appearance, but most of all by the characters' reactions to it, all driven by their own underlying motivations and reasons.

I am finding, as part of my NaNoWriMo efforts that, in truth, much of my characterisation sucks. And I think it is to do with motivation, that the feeling or sense of underlying complexity, of drivers and factors and influences, that is does not really exist. The characters are superficial in nature, with amplified or caricatured traits and personalities, but wholly lacking in depth. My characters do stuff because that is what they are there to do. For the reader (and writer) to engage with them I need to develop a better sense of their deeper selves, even if this is only ever hinted at within the story. With that sense of the character's self, without that complexity and implied unpredictability, they will never truly engage and entice the reader to empathise. In order for me to make them more real, they have to be born out of those motivations and driving forces, even if I cannot articulate them so clearly myself.

And to do that I need to understand the people around me, to gain a sense of those hidden motivators, of the influences and reasons that make them the way they are, and drive them to do the things they do, no matter how simple, complex, understandable or incomprehensible those actions may be. I need to use this as an inspiration for what I am writing, to lend humanity to these characters, so that they begin to speak and act with their own voice.


I wrote all of the above yesterday, and have been thinking a little more about it. And I do myself a small injustice. My characters of this NaNo are bland and shallow, because they are archetypes and have an archetype's motivations. My characters of last year's NaNo were, in the main, anything but. Molly was being asked to keep looking for a brother she believed twenty years dead, her sense of loss at being abandoned in favour of that search over that time causing great conflict within her. Her father, driven by guilt and fear, asks of her the impossible, something wholly unfair, even as he lies dying. Her mother has retreated within herself, armouring herself against the loss and the continuous reminder of it. Sarah is in love with Molly, and yet has a reasons to be near her that are completely at odds with those feelings. And the boy, well, the boy doesn't know what or why he is, only that he needs to help and is driven to do so despite the personal cost. All this against a backdrop of wonder and magic and growing darkness. To me they still feel real, human, full of emotions and motivations and a sundry of conflicting desires.

Somehow this year I have lost that sense of tangible humanity. My characters simply are too shallow, too archetypal, too empty. They aren't engaging me and they don't have their own voices and feel. And that bothers me.

nanowrimo day 9

bristolcon 2010