It’s the thing that holds a book together or causes it to fall apart. It’s the thing that writers will tell you is the essential piece to making your characters realistic. In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest things in the world to get right.
“Excuse me, excuse me. What’s MY motivation?” The characters in your books (not unlike those high-maintenance diva-like actors) need motivation in order to be true and convincing. We need to know what’s causing them to be happy, or seek revenge, or act petty, or have sex.
Some motivations are simple: I am hungry, therefore, I will eat my supper.
Some motivations are not simple, and those are the ones with which I am most concerned. Let me give you an example from real life.
I have a twin sister. People always ask me, “What is it like to have a twin?” and I always answer back, “That’s a hard question, because I don’t know what it’s like NOT to have a twin.” But I can tell you that twins growing up together are tied in a way that we probably don’t even understand ourselves.
My family moved from one end of the country to the other the summer before my sister and I started high school. What got me through most days was knowing that even if no one else in that entire giant school building knew or cared who I was, at least one person did, and was going through the exact same thing as me. We were facing this together, and because we were together, we were going to get through it.
My senior year of high school, though, we started fighting. Looking back, I will say that most of the blame was on me for that. I picked fights over stupid stuff. I was deliberately argumentative. I got annoyed over the slightest things. But at the time, I just thought that my sister had suddenly become obnoxious. I was actually glad that we were going our separate ways, to different schools for college, even though it was the first time we’d both go into a completely new situation without each other.
My freshman year of college was one of the hardest years of my life, and I must have had some inkling that it would be tough before I got there. I didn’t put it together until just a few weeks ago, though, that those fights my senior year of high school with my sister (who never really did anything that should have upset me that much) were a defense mechanism. Fighting with her was a way of distancing myself so that facing college without her wouldn’t seem so awful. (Yeah, sorry about that, sis.)
But, people, it took me 10 years to realize that. If motivations in real life are so complicated, how the heck are we supposed to get them into a 75,000-word book?
It’s not easy, and I continue to struggle with it. The good news is that as I learn more about relationships and people and the world, I also become a better writer, and that will never stop.