FiYoShiMo: Day 6: Character Motivations

Welcome to Day 6 of FiYoShiMo, and today we start looking at your characters. Before we go anywhere, go get a piece of paper and a pen. You’ve got some work to do as we talk character motivations.

I always start character building with their motivations, because they’re going to be one of the strongest parts of who or what the character is.

To figure out motivations, ask the following questions:

1. What drives this character to take risks?
2. What drives this character to take action?
3. What drives this character away from taking action?
4. What inspires or motivates or haunts this character?
5. How does the character feel about themselves, and do they want to change that?
6. Is there anything this character is putting off doing? Why?
7. Has the character lost anyone or anything significant? Do they want to change that?
8. What’s your character’s relationship to money, fame, power, or authority?
9. How trusting is your character?
10. What’s your character’s nightmare scenario? If they were in their worst situation possible, surrounded by the worst people, facing the worst outcomes, what does that look like? How do they react? How urgently? How aggressively (Yeah I know, that’s a whole bunch of questions all by itself, sorry)
11. What can’t this character stand or tolerate?
12. What traits in other people does this character despise?
13. What traits in other people does this character feel threatened or made inadequate by?
14. Is your character a planner?
15. How patient is your character?
16. How does your character handle pressure?
17. How does this character respond to threats?
18. What does a situation have to have in order for the character to see it as a threat?
19. Does your character ever give up?
20. Does your character think of themselves as a failure?

Got that piece of paper? Answer those questions about your protagonist. And no, you don’t get to skip any. And if you can’t think of any answer because it’s not in your story, write the answer, put a star by it, and then really REALLY think about putting it in your story (which is code for “it’s very likely in your best interest to have this stuff in there”).

I’ll wait right here.

Good to go? Alright then, onward.

A character without clear motivations is a character that a reader cannot relate to. And in the absence of clear motivation, characters often default to what’s called a “role completer” which is someone who just does a task. Like the barista who pours coffee but isn’t involved in the story beyond that. Or the landscaper you vaguely reference because your protag hears a lawn mower one morning.

A “character of substance” is a character with motivations that converge and diverge with the plot. Meaning they aren’t just there to info-dump knowledge like some sage you’re consulting about three hours into a quest, or they’re not Google. Characters exist larger than the plot in the story you’re telling, and it’s essential that the plot be something they do, not the only thing they do.

More work for you now: Ask your antagonist the same questions. Then pick any other character in your MS and answer the questions a third time.

Let me stress again that skipping a question because it’s not relevant is a great way to get me to saying something you’re not going to like hearing – like you’re afraid to write a deep character, your storycraft needs some big time development. Or maybe I’ll just get extra grumpy and tell you that your story won’t engage past the first beat if your characters have less crunch than the Cheerios you left sitting in the milk for the last six minutes. Don’t skip questions, and don’t settle for brush-off answers.

Tomorrow, we’re going to look at how today’s work feeds into character philosophies. See you then.

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