Amanda Marbais is the author of multiple short stories, including the collection Claiming a Body. You can find out more about her on her website www.amandamarbais.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her book here.
Hitchcock is quoted as saying: “When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?, ‘ I say, ‘Your salary.’”
Despite Hitchcock’s cheeky retort, this ubiquitous question is at the heart of characterization. If a character acts without an obvious motivation, the audience won’t invest in the plot. They certainly won’t relate to the main character, and that’s death to a movie.
Of course the same is true for fiction, but authors can use interiority to guide the reader. A character can have a visceral reaction, recall a past event to provide a basis for upcoming action, or simply state their motivation explicitly–I wanted to kill him. (Though this won’t preserve much mystery for the murder investigation.)
But even when a character is ultraclear about their motivation, it may not resonate with the reader. To complicate the situation, a character may not even know their motivation, because their actions are fueled by their subconscious (which is an important aspect of the unreliable narrator). It’s the disconnect between reader and character that I want to discuss.
First, I want to highlight what Chuck Wendig writes about character in his book on craft, Damn Fine Story. Wendig boils the character and their motivation down to a truth: “The character is their problem.” In other words, the character is defined by the two part engine of motivation and obstacle.
For John McClane in Die Hard, the problem is his separation from his wife. His imploding marriage begins the story. It’s why he’s in Nakatomi Plaza when Hans Gruber takes over the building. But the terrorists are only the immediate problem. The persistent and motivating problem is McClane’s failure to reconcile with his wife, whom he still loves. And it’s why we care about McClane.
A failing romantic relationship is a pretty recognizable motivation. But what if the backstory and character’s motivation are far outside the reader’s experience? What if the reader can’t relate, despite being told exactly how the character is motivated? Is there a way around this? No and Yes.
In Reader-Response Theory, critics define an Ideal Reader and an Actual Reader. I’m going to risk reducing these terms a bit for the sake of discussion. For literature students, the Ideal Reader is the person who immediately grasps and relates to the text. (Don’t we all love those readers!) The Actual Reader is the person who picks up the book (and might throw it down).
Let’s use the (wonderful) bestselling novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as an example. The two main characters co-create video games. The Ideal Reader for that book is someone reading in 2023 who has at least a passing knowledge of video games (and accepts that people are motivated by artistic creation). Fast forward to 2060. In the future, an Actual Reader may find that gaming technology has substantially changed. That reader will need something more to latch on to. Of course, Zevin’s work is rich with meditations on friendship and creativity which will continue to draw future audiences.
Still, that Actual Reader of 2060 will have to accept some of the aspects of the cultural climate they haven’t experienced. For many readers, that won’t be an issue. Most of us love novels written outside our lifetimes too.
But some readers feel a novel must speak directly to them, in order to be relatable. In literature courses, sometimes a student may lose interest if they can’t relate to a character’s motivation (because their experiences don’t dovetail), or if they don’t agree with the character’s actions (usually from a moral perspective). At a point, these readers can sometimes cease to recognize the vitality of the character, and then all is lost.
Lorrie Moore, in her introduction to The Best American Short Stories of the Century, said of both reading and writing, “It is a lovely shock of mercy and democracy to find that we need to spend time in the company of people whose troubles we might ordinarily avoid.”
As a reader and writer, I’m drawn to characters on the edges of society, those who are just hanging on by a thread (or do things we disagree with). I accept that sometimes these characters aren’t relatable, because of their experiences. Still, despite their outrageous experiences, I try to make them as relatable as possible. And I feel like there are ways to do that through craft.
Balancing your character by including even a small universal experience can help establish some sort of common ground with the reader. Matt Bird in his book, The Secrets of Story, posits that if your character is misunderstood in the beginning of a story, they’ll be relatable regardless of their other traits and background. There may be some truth here. Most people know what it feels like to be misunderstood. In the novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor, after a terrible childhood (which few can relate to), grows into a closed-off, untrusting adult. She’s judgemental and unlikeable. But her coworkers are cruel to her in petty ways. They misunderstand her and that feels familiar. So, it establishes some common ground.
This still may not be enough. Being misunderstood only goes so far. But I would say, don’t ditch the strangeness of a character. Just work to woo people over to a character’s way of thinking. Provide as much context as possible, either in the form of backstory or commentary that reflects a character’s logic. You might not be able to short-hand as much as you would with a relatable character (or especially a trope), one that people immediately recognize, but you can tell a story that’s not been told before.