writing

The Butler Did It, But WHY?

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Who, what, when, where, how, and why? Of the six questions, it’s the last one that really hooks our attention. We are driven by a need to understand, to frame our lives within a cohesive story. Why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? Life is a quest for motive, and motive is the heart of story.

In writing, the search for motive occurs on two planes.

On one plane, the characters work to piece together why certain events happen in their world. They may do this alone or in a group, but the struggle is the same. Like us, characters strive to understand what drives the world around them.

On the other plane, readers are searching for what motivates the characters. Part of the joy of reading is allowing the reader to piece together the puzzle, to judge and identify with (or against) the characters. The reader may receive the clues at the same time as the protagonist or slightly before (resulting in dramatic irony) but the goal of the game remains the same.

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Life is a quest for motive, and motive is the heart of story.

Characters, like people, aren’t perfectly good or evil. Some of the most fascinating characters commit terrible acts for good reasons (at least at first) or do good deeds for non-altruistic reasons (envy, pride, selfishness). This occasional dissonance between the outward appearance of a character (what other characters see them doing) and the inner workings of a character (why they behave certain ways) is something we can all relate to.

What about characters who act in ways that are blatantly unwise? Have you ever been frustrated by characters in a horror movie who decide to split up or open the door and head toward the creepy noises? Why do characters run into traffic without looking, chase the bad guys without backup, sneak into buildings without permission, and push the giant red button marked ‘DO NOT PUSH’? Sure, all of these actions may forward the plot of a story, but they should also be anchored to motive.

We don’t always think clearly when we’re terrified, stressed, or under pressure. Sometimes our curiosity and impulsiveness can be overwhelming. Maybe we like the thrill of danger or feel like we have something to prove. Any and all of these can lead us to make less than stellar choices. And characters are no different.

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Part of the joy of reading is allowing the reader to piece together the puzzle, to judge and identify with (or against) the characters.

The study of motive is, in essence, a study of human nature. And there is no other human we understand better than ourselves. So why do you choose to write? If you asked the people closest to you what they thought your motivation for writing was, would their answer be the same?

 


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