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.