Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dangling The Carrot

I have three things taped to my desk. A picture of my character from my current WIP that my friend Natalie was kind enough to draw for me, a map of what I call the ice-cream-cone diagram of my current WIP, which sadly, I cannot share on blogs, and possibly the most helpful thing of all - a Motivation Map. Without it my book would die a tragic death. Tragic, tragic, tragic.

I made this map a few weeks ago, and it has transformed the way I write. It opened a thousand doors. It revealed plot holes I never thought could exist. It gave me the opportunity to dangle carefully placed carrots in front of my characters, immediately giving my scenes more tension and direction.

This map isn't anything special at all. It's a flow chart that goes something like this:

Character Motivation + What Character Needs to Get What He Wants = Character's Main Action = Chain Reaction of Events Based on the Main Action

Seems simple enough, right? Guess again. I spent two days figuring out my character's motivations! And this is my third draft of the book - a complete rewrite this time around. You'd think I would know my character motivations, but it was surprisingly difficult. I suddenly saw why my book had major problems. As an example, here's the beginning of my main character's motivation chart. It changes sometimes. Well, lately, it's changed a lot as I shape my book into what I want. That's the beauty of mapping. It can change. All. The. Time.

Nick wants a second chance with Lilian and his daughters + Nick needs the bad guys gone and Catarina on his side in order to clear his name and ensure a new start = Nick goes to Lilian for safety = Nick gets his daughters to the inn for safety = Nick goes to Brazil to find Jeffrey and Catarina = and on and on and on

Everything's driven by Nick's main motivation. That motivation has to be clear, and it needs to stay present in every scene of the book.

It's pretty simple, really. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know my character motivations very well, but I'd challenge you to do this with every one of your main characters, even secondary characters. It was difficult for me to pin my character motivations into a small phrase, probably because they are complex beings with complex desires. Boiling it down feels unnatural, almost, like I'm not giving my character enough credit for his drastic actions.

My point here is that once you know that main motivation, use it. That's the carrot you use to drive the tension in your scenes. Rip the carrot away to drive your characters to the edge. So much fun.

Question For The Day: How well do you know your character motivations? Are you willing to map it out and see if you know them as well as you thought you did?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I've decided you just live to complicate my life. I mean, here I am, comfortable with my writing process . . . then - BAM - you give me a motivation equation. Did I ever mention I hated algebra and barely skimmed through in high school. I made straight As in college - go figure.

    Okay, seriously kidding. For the project I'm just about done with, I know the motivations of each character. I know what they want, or rather, I know what they think they want in order to find happiness. Thinking is not always a good thing. You see, in the end, all the thinking in the world doesn't bring about happiness and, sometimes, people have to realign their thought process at the last minute. : )

    So, do your characters actually get what they want in the end, or do they get a revamped version of what they thought they wanted?

    Great post. I've copied/pasted your little equation in a Word document and plan to use it as I go through the revision process on my next project. You're a wonderful source of information. Yeah, you complicate my life and make me think . . . but that's not a bad thing. : )


  2. I've always thought about character motivation, but I've never made a fancy map! This is a great idea!

  3. As always great post and you've given me plenty to think about. I did something similar because the editing book I was reading asked you write the heart of your story, the one thing you wouldn't change. I think the heart of most books is the thing the MC wants or thinks they want because that's what's fueling them and pushing everything forward.
    I like the little flow chart I'll use that.. Glad it's working for you.

  4. This is exactly what I am attempting to figure out for my re-write. I finished my first draft, and since then have changed the story, and decided to tell a story from another character's POV, and changed the story and the villain (and still it's not totally different book), but this time instead of starting a re-write, I am working on characters motivations. And not just for my good guys, but for the villains too. It's not easy, and it's certainly not quick, but I think it will be worth it in the end.

  5. I'm fixing to try this now!

    Thanks, Glam, for another of your great posts. They really help me think critically about the structure of my novels.


  6. Oooh, great post. I think I'll try it after this draft is done. But since this is first draft, I'll just let the story unfold for now.

  7. Very important topic, good post Michelle. One of my biggest turn-offs in a novel is implausible motivations for the pro/antagonist. I don't care if it is exaggerated, this is fiction, and if it's a thriller it needs some degree of hyperbole to give the heightened sense of action or suspense. The issues come to point when characters do things just to do them, or when the motivation is not equal to the action.

    For me, FATE'S GUARDIAN spans nearly 30 years (plus a past live 600+ years ago), so I have to show the initial motivations and sustain and/or grow them over time. I need to try your equation and see how I fare.

  8. I'm a plotter, so motivations are taken care of before I begin. Although, they sometimes become more defined as I go along.

    Lynnette Labelle

  9. I feel like I should try mapping it out, because I just know I'll have missed something.

    My MC ran away from home to avoid her dad. Every time things go from bad to worse in her life, I have her weigh what's happening against having to go home and face her father again. That's been my primary means of keeping her motivations constant.

  10. Ha! I just posted (well, linked) about character motivation today. Funny how the blogosphere synchronistically connects. I need all the help I can get with this topic, so I'll reread your post with relish. Thanks for the info.

  11. Whoa! I love that. I'm going to be doing that today. It's such a simple concept, but the simple ones usually work the best. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Scott: You're a writer. You need life complicated if you're going to get anywhere, right?

    I made straight As in college too, and that's because I had no math classes. I hate math. Funny that I use an equation, hah! Really, though, it was because I was too lazy to scan in my actual flow chart that has boxes and arrows and all that fun stuff.

    Mariah: Hope you try it! I'm so glad I did. I thought I knew what my characters wanted, but I was wrong!

    Alexa: I like that about writing the heart of your story. That's kind of how I think of this map, actually. It's where all the meat lies.

    Lost Wanderer: So glad you're working on the motivations! It can help out a lot, and shows you what your story is really about. My vallain's motivation was the hardest for me to figure out. That's when I realized I had a lot of work to do.

    TereLiz: I'm glad I can help! All my ideas come from painful personal experience, so it's nice to know I can share what I learn! That's why I love the blogosphere, all of us helping each other out.

    Novice: Yeah, I try to figure out motivations after I've really gotten into the story and characters. Otherwise it feels too contrived. Good luck!

    Rick: My villain's motivations were very implausible, as my husband pointed out to me the other night. I've since fixed it, and it wasn't that hard to do, thank goodness!

    Wow, I can see that for something epic like your book you might have to do several maps! If the character motivations change, that makes for an interesting twist. My character motivations change, but not until the end, and in many respects that's the point.

    Let me know how you fare!

    Lynnette: I'm a plotter, as well. I thought I knew my character motivations, but was surprised when I sat down to actually write them out. Have you tried that? I'm assuming that since you're a plotter you probably have.

    Dominique: That's how I felt - that I'd better write it out to see if I really did have it all down.

    Your plot sounds really good, and a great way to keep her motivations constant!

    MG: Oh, I'll have to check out your post. Awesome!

    Lois: Yeah, very simple. I didn't think of posting about it until I ran out of other ideas. I'm glad I did, though, because it's helped me see how important the simple things are, as you say.

  13. Oooh, that looks like something I should try for my WiP. I like to think I know my character motivations, but I'm probably completely off.

    I know that's one reason I stopped writing my last WiP--the character's motivations kept changing and weren't very clear to me, which made it all a mess. I haven't given up on that project but it's been temporarily shelved. Perhaps I ought to try this method for it; it may help me discover their goals.

  14. I often don't know my characters' motivations, which is why I have a hard time finishing stories. I need a map like yours!

  15. Michelle, GREAT post. This concept was incredibly difficult for me, and I was probably working on Rooster for three years before I dared to sit down and even attempt to write down what his main motivation was. And, when I did, I couldn't come up with anything. A vague sense of it was always there, but I wasn't able to put it clearly into words. I can now, but it took a lot of work. For my current novel, Bread, it's much clearer, probably because I realized that having a clear concept could make writing the story, at least this particular one, much easier. This is a great exercise, and I hope everyone tries it.

  16. I prefer "free writing" for my first draft. Then for the second draft I do all the technical work. I found doing a character arc very useful; now I can add a "Motivation Map" to my things-to-do-for-second-draft list.

    Love the artistic rendition of your main character. :)

  17. You know my methods: I like to know as much about my story and characters as I can. Although I think that sometimes the only way we can actually figure it out in the beginning stages is, as Ann Victor says, to do a lot of free writing.

    I think that initial drafts can be a lot like making our "maps" as long as we remember to ask ourselves who are characters are and why we're telling this story. There was a point with my last book where, like Davin, I couldn't answer these basic questions. It was a lot of work to find the answers, but once I had them, the story crystallized in my mind and everything became much easier as the story improved.

    I have two novels in the "simmering" stage right now, as I try to decide which to write next. Likely I'll go with the one for which I know most about the characters; the other one isn't ready yet.

  18. You always have such nifty ideas. I am more than willing--eager, even-- to use your motivation map. I love the dangling carrot image--what a great way to visualize what keeps the character and story moving forward.

  19. I'm pretty familiar with my MC's character motivation (it's a personal one for me too, so easy to remember) but I love this equation and how it works for every scene. Awesome!

  20. This reminds me a the childrens' books like "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" and so on. Good lesson!

  21. This is why I struggle so much with writing the ending. I don't fully understand my character's motivations. I think it's important to know those things. But mapping? Um, dude, Lady Glam, you know me. But I'd like to say I'd map it out one day. Far into the future, maybe.

    But motivation is totally essential.

  22. The reason we writers have to ask these questions is that the readers will be asking. "What does this guy want to happen? Why?" If we can't answer, our readers will just end up scratching their heads and looking for something else to read.

  23. Dara: Yes, I thought I knew mine, too, but didn't. Especially the villain. I would certainly try dusting off your project by mapping out some motivations. You might be surprised where it will get you!

    Annie: Then make a map! I'd be happy to chat with you about this, too. It's always a lot of fun.

    Davin: Isn't it funny how we avoid pinning it down? I avoided it forever, too. Not even sure why!

    The more I write the more I figure these things out. I think that with my next novel, this whole motivation thing will make the project a lot easier, like you with Bread.

    Ann: I'm in agreement with the free writing. I can't figure out anything, really, until I have first draft.

    Scott B.: I love your comment because it explains exactly how I work, as well. My stories have to simmer for awhile, and it's very hard to answer all those questions up front. It takes a lot of writing and a lot of "drafting" to get there. Oftentimes I feel like I'm wasting my time writing nothing but crap, but in the end it got me exactly where I needed.

    Tricia: I loved the dangling carrot, too. It makes me giggle to see my 50 year old character jumping around for it. He sure wants it bad, though!

    L.T.: It does work for every scene, which I talked about a bit in my Don't Dis The Map series on my other blog.

    Oh, a personal motivation that matches your characters. Sounds like fun! Or not...

    Erin: Yeah, my daughter has the If You Give A Moose a Muffin book. Quite fun!

    Elana: You're going to make me march over to your house, sit you down, and teach you some mapping skills. Seriously, I've never seen someone so dead set against. Elana, you're missing out! And it's really not scary or hard, I promise. You. Me. Lunch sometime. :)

  24. Scott B.: Yes, that's so true. This is why I was so confused with my book. I just couldn't figure out why my characters felt so darn flat.

  25. If anybody's interested, there is an EXCELLENT article over on edittorent today about character motivations. It takes you beyond the steps I've laid out here.

    Deepening Your Characters

  26. Great post. Love this blog and all the thought provoking questions it inspires. I'm back to my WIP to rethink character motivations! Ta ta!

  27. Terresa: Good luck! And I'm so glad we're helpful. That makes my day!

  28. I'm outlining a new WIP right now. I definitely started out with motivation: my FMC wants to restore her family's name. But since it somehow slid into the romantic genre, she is determined to solve this problem by marrying a rich nobleman. The motivation comes from being evicted from their estate as a child and seeing her parents suffering that kind of loss.

    That's her motivation. Doesn't mean she'll achieve any of those goals.

  29. Andrew: That sounds good. Some great motivation there with lots of possibilities!

  30. Never quite loved an ice cream cone as much as I do now. :)

  31. Angie: Ah, if only I could share that diagram! Ice cream. Mmmm. :)

  32. ah - love the equation - makes sense -

  33. James: Hope it can help you out if you need!

  34. It took me a few days to evaluate this. What an effective exercise! If it’s okay, I’m pasting this into my Writing Technique file. Thanks for passing on so many thought provoking approaches to the craft. (I just love writing psychology!)

  35. JB: I'm glad it's helping you out a bit! Thanks for stopping by. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.