Character Motivation

By John Gilstrap

Someone asked me recently about how I motivate my characters.  The person told me that he’d read an article somewhere about writing biographies for your characters, or maybe interviewing them to find out why they do what they do.

Interviewing fictional beings that reside exclusively in my imagination. The question was a serious one from a man who is serious about his writing, but I had no idea what to say.

Fact is, I’ve never thought of the process that way.  Interview my characters?  I can’t imagine doing that.  Truth be told, my characters are all pretty lazy.  They just sit there and do nothing unless I give very specific instructions.  Characters speaking out of turn without my bidding, is, I think, a pretty good working definition of psychosis.

For me, plot equals character which equals motivation which equals drama.  The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their component parts.  When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast.  The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away.  The parent is motivated to get him back.  The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end.  Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem for me.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more.  Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending.  It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally.  When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay.  (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.)  But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be.  My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were hand grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued.  The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings.  It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing.  I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process.  Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.