The one common thread in all of the books that are falling apart on my shelf? Characters—flawed ones with desires and needs who spend most of the story tripping over their weaknesses in an effort to get what they want.
— Becca Puglisi, “Getting to the Core of Character Motivation”
All of life is surrounded by the question, how? How am I going to get into college? How am I going to pay for my life? How am I going to lose weight? How am I going to get from point A to point B in the most advantageous way available?
Life is full of possible destinations, seemingly endless opportunities that are birthed from envy and perceived necessity. The world screams at us the ways we NEED to be successful; have a house, get paid x amount, take quarterly vacations with brand new wardrobes so that you can capture the “perfect” photos, KNOW your dream career and be happy every day working in it.
Technology amplifies these screams, allowing people to put their best foot forward, hiding the hardships while presenting edited snapshots of their lives. We feel the weight of these “how’s”, devising schemes, making plans, setting goals to try to climb to the heights of perfection, pursuing all of the “how’s” at once, hoping that one day we will magically wake up with the willpower to conquer the consistent step.
When writing, it is easy to get bogged down under the “how’s”. How will this character move from the beginning of the story to the end? How will they transition from place to place? How will they react to things? How will they grow into the person that you always dreamed they would become?
You craft them, moving them along, but it often feels like you are shoving them forward with the heel of your boot, praying that they will finally catch momentum to run through to the finish line.
Why is it so hard? Why do we dream of a thousand possible destinations, yet fail to make minor headway into the majority of them? Why don’t our characters move organically, their journeys falling flat, forced through by an all appointing narrator?
Why? Because they do not have clear motivations.
We focus so hard on the “hows”, and we forget to narrow down the “whys”. Why do we do the things that we do? Why are we successful in achieving some things, while others are spinning loops of half-tries and inevitable failures?
When you find what drives a character, the deep desires of their hearts, their personalities, their fears, their environment, their history…..suddenly their path unfolds before you, every step that they take not only predictable but satisfying. When you understand who they are, their decisions are a simple formula, one that adds and subtracts all that makes up their very selves, crunches all of the numbers, and pops out their destiny.
As an author, you have the incredible job of manipulating this equation, throwing in obstacles and circumstances to generate the outcome that you want, but instead of feeling forced….it feels logical… as if it was they true way all along. It just makes sense.
People don’t often accomplish things just because they think they need to, or because they might want something. They do things because something inside of them is driving them forward. Something within their hearts, their personality’s, their pasts…how their very minds work… breeds enough discontentment to push them over the edge into momentum. The bigger the task, the greater the motivation required to propel them.
“Hows” are easier to stomach, they seem remarkably simpler. Merely look at the steps of another, and how they achieved what you want, then line your foot precisely within their print. This seems to be a rather straightforward formula. So why doesn’t your result match theirs?
Your motivations are different.
Take one of my first “how” questions as an example: how am I going to buy a house?
Well why do you think you need a house? Is it that you don’t have enough room for all of your stuff? Is it what your parents expect of you? Is it that you have a family and you want a home in which to create memories that are all your own? Is it that your spouse has been pestering you for one?
Let’s take it even deeper. Is it that you believe you are a failure, and that owning a house is the one and only way that you can prove you’re a success? Is it that you grew up without a home, and a house is the best way to provide safety and security for your own children, something you never had?
I guarantee you, the stronger the motivation, the deeper the fear or desire, the more likely you will be able to achieve that specific goal….why? Because you will do anything to reach it, your motivations clear, focused, and urgent.
If you are struggling to reach your destination, don’t ask how you can do things differently, instead ask…..why do I want this? What, deep down, is keeping me from achieving, blocking me from this goal? Is it my past, my personality, my fears, a more urgent hope?
When you understand your motivations, your journey unfurls before you. You will see your steps clearly, where you came from and why you landed where you did. The “how” will suddenly make more sense, and you will finally be able to tweak your own equation in a way that will grant you expected results.
You will also learn what is possible in your equation. You will not achieve every fleeting want your brain has ever dreamed up…. you are unique and will never fully be able to copy the exact path of another. But hopefully instead of copying, you will be inspired to discover your best possible equation, narrow your goals, and achieve what you truly desire to be.