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Amanda Marbais on Character Motivation

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.

Amanda Marbais

You can find out more about her on her website, amandamarbais.com.

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I loved the Hitchcock quote. Back when I was a TV critic, and doing press conferences, we’d sometimes get an idiot asking, “What attracted you to the role?” I always wanted one of them to answer, “The paycheck.”

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      I love this, Anne. I can definitely imagine someone asking this question.

  2. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Fun post, good summary of various aspects of characterization! It all boils down to this, in my opinion: Just write and trust yourself. Don’t over-analyze too early in the process.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Christine. At the end of the day, the main character primarily needs to be someone the writer believes in.

  3. Colleen Winter
    Colleen Winter

    Loved this discussion on character and the fine line between making them relatable but also staying true to who the character is. My favourite line is “Work to woo people over to the character’s way of thinking.” Being able to accomplish that is when craft turns into art and we can present readers with different ways of thinking and seeing the world.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      What a great line, Colleen! Thank you!

  4. Avatar
    Laurie's Story

    Great post – something we can all relate to. I think all of us have a soft spot for characters facing challenges. After all, WE are characters who face challenges.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Laurie! It’s great to hear others have a soft spot for characters facing enormous challenges. Maybe their redemption is that much more satisfying.

  5. Avatar
    Jacqueline Vick

    I love the quote about spending time with people whose troubles you would otherwise avoid. This applies to every murder mystery reader! Thank you for the insights.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Jacqueline! Laurie Moore’s quote never fails to inspire me as both a writer and a reader. She is wonderful.

      1. Amanda Marbais
        Amanda Marbais

        *Lorrie Moore

  6. Avatar
    Saralyn Richard

    Thanks for sharing your well-researched views on character motivation. I can’t help thinking of Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry, which I am reading now. She’s as unique a character as I’ve ever read, yet her motivations resonate with me, and I can’t help loving her quirky ways.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Saralyn! I’ll definitely check this out. I confess, as a reader, I love quirky characters.

  7. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    I, too, enjoyed your well-researched views on character motivation. Like Saralyn, when I read Lessons in Chemistry, I found Elizabeth Zott’s one-of-a-kind quirkiness endearing.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      I love that Lessons in Chemistry gets two votes of confidence here. Thanks, Laurie! Looks like I’m adding to my reading stack.

  8. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    What a fabulous, insightful essay – many thanks!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Galit!

  9. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    Hitchcock, as usual, got it right. Motivation requires butt glue equals royalties.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      So true, Sheila.

  10. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    This was a very insightful look at character. I think that mystery and thriller writers like me get too caught up in the pilot twists and not enough in what motivated the twists. Your quote from Hitchcock reminded me of when someone asked Lee Child when he would start writing a book he’d thought of. “When they pay me,” he said.

  11. Amanda Marbais
    Amanda Marbais

    Thanks, Carl! Love the pragmatism in both these quotes.

  12. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post, Amanda! The first script for “Live Free or Die Hard” had John McClain saying, “How can I help?” when the city came to him with the problem. Bruce Willis read it and said, “John McClain would never say that,” because ‘helping’ was never McClain’s motivation. It’s only when his daughter was in danger that he helped. Family was always his primary motivation.

  13. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    Thanks for this super insightful post, Amanda! I love diving into the weirdness of characters. the weirder the better, imho. So thanks for giving me permission to expand my strange obsession. Great advice to woo the reader.

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Tracey, I think we share a love of complex and unique characters. Your characters are compelling and always keep me on my toes.

  14. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Great post, Amanda! Early in my series, I realized that I needed other motivations for my sleuth protagonist besides “she wants to solve the case.” I love how you’ve articulated many of the things I’ve come up with over the years. And you’ve given me some new things to think about too! Thank you!

    1. Amanda Marbais
      Amanda Marbais

      Thanks, Margaret. I appreciate your thoughts on your sleuth protagonists! Well put. Not only must they want to solve the case, they need to satisfy a deeper and more complex motivation.

  15. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    I love this thought-provoking post, Amanda. I’m always hopeful my Actual Readers (ARs) will give my characters a chance before judging them. Authors just can’t count on that and that’s the risk in the writing. We painstakingly cultivate our characters as if tending a fragile vine, then thrown them out into the world with abandon. I enjoyed how much your post made me think about character building and risk-taking.

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