Motives on Steroids

I recently read The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater.  I had previously read The Scorpio Races and enjoyed it fairly well, so I was open to this new book of hers.  However, I knew that Stiefvater tends to write romances more than anything else, and seeing as The Scorpio Races was as much romance as fantasy, I didn’t expect much different from The Raven Boys.

Now, this is not a review.  I have a point.

The book was incredibly passionate, but not with romance.  You see, the main character is pretty much forbidden by… well, everything, to fall in love.  If she kisses her true love, he dies.  That’s the way her world works.  Though there was romance in the book, it was nowhere near the scale I had come to expect from hearing about Stiefvater.

No, the passion wasn’t in the romantic subplot.  It was in every facet of the book.

The events of the book felt inevitable.  Every character was making decisions, but there was no other way for the events to play out.  Everything felt packed with power and emotion.  And as we know, emotion is what makes a story.

The same feeling ran through the Mistborn trilogy.  Everything was so electrically charged and unquestionable– there were a few things that were ambiguous, and they worked for emotional plot points, but with most of the plot points, there was no question about what was the right course of action, especially for the specific character.  It’s like they have motives on steroids.

And motives on steroids is one thing I wouldn’t mind for my own writing.  How do they do it?

Every so often, the main character in a story gets blackmailed into doing something they don’t want to do.  Circumstances force them to work together with someone they don’t like, or go against their principles, or something.  Those are all good results for the short-term, but if you want your main character to save the world, blackmail isn’t going to work.  Who’s more admirable, the man who saves a city from imminent death because he wants to or the man who saves the city because he’s paid to?

Right answer, wrong question.  This is a much more complex concept than I’ve ever encountered dealing with character motivations.  It has to do with emotions and inner workings more than simple manipulations.  It’s a delicate process, and it takes some care to explain as well.

The characters in The Raven Boys, in Mistborn… they weren’t simply required to do things by external circumstances.  They did things because of internal circumstances.  Yes, the world influenced them, but their decisions were from them.  Put any other character in the same place and we’d have a different story.

And… that still doesn’t make sense.  It’s about the person’s principles, their character.  Their motive for doing anything should reflect their character.

Blackmail is okay.  Blackmail someone to get into a car and sure, there’s no problem.  But blackmail someone to save the world, and you’ve got a mercenary.  What happens when the blackmailer says, “This is out of our hands”?  Does the hero walk away?  Would he still be a hero?  Or does he still save the city because of his principles?

It’s not just a difference between right or wrong, or mercenary or not, or personal or not.  It’s more complex than that.  It can’t be explained so easily.

Adam Parrish, from The Raven Boys.  It’s hard to choose between them, but if I had to choose a favorite character from the book, he’d probably come in first or second.  He’s driven by his independence.  He’s along on the quest with Gansey (pardon me if I’m misspelling the names– I listened to it on audiobook and there are only so many names you can Google), but he’s fiercely dedicated to making his own way in the world.  His plot line is separate from the main one, but all his choices hinge on his independence.  If he didn’t have those principles, he wouldn’t be the character he is.  That’s what gives him his passion.

Ronan Lynch, the most raven Raven Boy of them all.  He appears to have no principles.  He’s blunt, he’s a fighter, he curses worse than a sailor.  And yet, when you give him a bird, or a Parrish, to look after, his actions show his character.

So what drives these people?  Their apparent motives?  Ronan obviously follows Gansey because he doesn’t like Ronan’s bird, doesn’t let him fight with his brother, and makes him study.  Obviously.  Because I would follow anyone to the ends of the earth if they dragged me along on fool’s errands searching for a magical alarm clock.

Of course not.  It’s because of Ronan’s character, not because of his apparent motive.  Getting something out of it matters nothing, especially to him.  Their character drives them.

The thing that makes this so difficult to explain is that you can’t define character.  Not conclusively, not in a formulaic way like you can define character development.  You can’t generalize it like that.  It’s something that’s unique from person to person.  It drives each one individually.  And yet, for all that, it runs beneath the surface, influencing, but seldom visible.

I have the feeling that if you can grasp this concept and use it to your advantage, you’ll come out head and shoulders above the rest of the writing world.  Unfortunately, there’s no formula to it.  You either figure it out for yourself, or you make do with what flimsy motivation you’ve got.  Hopefully we can manage the former.

But hold a moment.  I was about to end the blog post there, but let’s think about this for a moment.  (Yes, I’m totally writing this as I think about it.  And talking to myself as I go.)

What happens when a character doesn’t do what you want?  Those inexplicable moments where you try to make them pick up the gun, or walk away, or sing the theme song, and they don’t do it?  The moments that, as you try and force them, turn into writer’s block and dead ends.  What’s happening?  What’s wrong?

It’s simple.  Whatever you’re trying to make them do goes against their character.

As I said, it influences, but never shows itself.  If it can make a character do something, it can keep the character from doing something.  So this November, or whenever you write your next novel, if your characters start to rebel, don’t look at it as a writer’s milestone to success.  Look at it as what it is, a problem, and figure it out.  Backtrack and modify.  And once you do that and you’re on your way with the story again, take some free time and figure out what went wrong.  What was the difference between your character’s character and what you were asking them to do?  Why wouldn’t they do it?  When you can figure that out, I think you’ve got it.

As you can see, I’ve hardly thought this out, nor have I made it at all coherent.  If you have any thoughts on the topic, I would love to hear them.


15 thoughts on “Motives on Steroids

  1. Motives on steroids…

    The writing milestone is not character rebellion; the milestone is when characters take on life, when you are writing from your subconscious and they do something naturally or something that surprises you but works. Thinking about it, I can’t remember a time… scratch that, I can. When I was writing Short-Circuited, both of my MC’s rebelled. I’m not even sure how that happened.

    Anyway, lovely post. I might think of something else and comment again later. My brain has got little bits of what wants to be a comment, but I can’t think coherently right now.

  2. Great post!
    One thing I love about Stiefvater’s writing is that yes, there’s romance, but she writes it well and doesn’t it overwhelm the book. Blue and Adam are adorable but the focus of the story is on the magic in the ley line.

    1. I think the focus of the story was definitely on the characters, but you’re right– the romance was never overpowering.

      As you can see, this is hardly a review. It’s hardly coherent. And for that reason I might assume that you didn’t even read all of it. If you did, I don’t mean to offend you. And if you didn’t, I guess I’m fine with that.

      1. This concept is actually brilliant– I used it last night to fix one of the problems I’ve had with my story for the last couple months. Unfortunately, I didn’t write it so smoothly as I should have liked.

  3. I haven’t read Stiefvater, but I’ll throw a comment at you anyway! The pivot point of your post seems to be about how, if the character isn’t internally motivated to leap towards the quest of the story (the saving of the world, the rescue of the friend, so on), the story loses something. But I can’t seem to agree – sure, a character might be blackmailed into saving the world, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t be as interesting. The character might go from classic hero to anti-hero, and the story might go from high fantasy to dark fantasy, from space opera to cyberpunk, but it can be just as fascinating.

    In fact, now that I think about it, haven’t a lot of recent movies been about that – person gets loved one stolen, must commit crime for blackmailer, stuff hits the fan…DRAMA.

    1. Indeed. I wish I hadn’t been so incoherent– I can’t remember writing about some of that stuff. But I think my point was that no two characters will have the exact same motivation, and not just any motivation will work for any character. It has to fit with their principles. If working for a blackmailer fits, go ahead– but if it doesn’t fit, you spend an awful lot of time trying to push a square peg into a round hole.

  4. WARNING: The below comment is likely to contain obvious information and ridiculous ideas and be of questionable coherency.

    There’s a quote I’ve seen that says “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” … And I was going to work that into this comment somehow. It’s a question of character again. You find the inner goodness and/or badness in a character and see how it influences their actions.

    I think one possible way to figure this out is to make your plot very personal to the characters. Make them face hard decisions. Maybe question their morals. Strip them down to their core and see what it’s made of. See what they do when they have nothing to lose vs. everything to lose.

    1. Yes. You’re correct… but not completely correct. I find the stories that strip people down to their morals incredibly moralistic (duh) and preachy. So I’d prefer not to do that.

      However, I did discover the way to do this right. Any time the character does something important you asked them to do, it’s because it agrees with their inner character. That means, if you can pinpoint the principles that made him or her do such a thing, you can use those principles to make him or her do something else.

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