Many years ago, I wrote a story I was very proud of — a stylistic breakthrough, I thought — but it was boring as hell.
The language was rich and challenging, a reflection of the narrator’s state of mind, with long, meandering sentences and lots of subsidiary clauses in paragraphs that rarely gave the reader a break. By the end of it all, nothing much had happened.
Does this type of story sound familiar to you? It might seem the problem is the long, meandering sentences (and they might be terrible, too), but most often, the passive main character is to blame. The character may not have a clearly articulated desire. Or if they do, they don’t act on it.
Let’s take a look at why passivity kills stories and then how to fight it — and breathe life into the scenes in your fiction.
Self-help and good manners make for dull fiction
The first stories I wrote included swashbuckling heroes in outer space, shipwrecked adventurers facing gangs of pirates on a treasure island, brilliant detectives who would go to any length to solve a mystery, and so on. As I grew older, I learned to view such dramatic scenarios with skepticism. My stories became quieter and quieter, until one day the drama was a mere whisper on the page.
”People who have practiced good manners and conflict-avoidance all their lives have to remember to leave those habits of mind at the door when they enter the theater of fiction. Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes.”— Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext
The problem is conflict-avoidance. It’s deeply ingrained in me. I don’t like people who misbehave. You may love confrontation in real life and find it easy to recreate on the page, but I suspect most writers, like me, wince when their character acts in a reprehensible way.
I said I don’t like people who misbehave. That isn’t entirely true. I love people who misbehave in the novels of Elmore Leonard or Agatha Christie or Robin Hobb. If Elizabeth Bennet always behaved well — like her sister Jane does — Pride & Prejudice wouldn’t be the great drama it is. Can you imagine Darcy as a friendly, communicative guy? He wouldn’t be much fun.
Fiction isn’t self help. It’s not an etiquette manual or handbook for making friends and influencing people. In fact, Charles Baxter calls fiction “the antidote to the conduct manual” and says it’s the “place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and do confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful.”
That’s not to say that you can’t have happy endings or cozy elements, especially if you’re writing a cozy mystery or a clean romance. But even in a cozy mystery someone gets murdered. Even in a romance, the characters oppose each other. Regardless of genre expectations, the engine of fiction runs on character motivation.
What makes a character’s motivation dramatic?
Do you know the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”? It’s worth remembering. But also this: A scene in which your main character asks for a glass of water may not qualify as drama. In the boring story I was so proud of, my character did lots of mundane things, including visit an art museum. None of it mattered.
Every character should want a glass of water, and then you should withhold it.
Let’s look at some examples.
Rachel X chases Dr. Bishop across the Sahara
Consider this scene: Your main character, Rachel X, has been pursuing her nemesis across the Sahara Desert. She’s been lost for days and is dying of thirst. She finally comes across a jeep. The driver is Dr. Bishop, her enemy. Instead of killing him, as she had vowed, she begs him for a drink of water.
The scene has potential, because it hinges on high stakes. If the hero dies of thirst, she’ll never get what she wants: revenge. And if the enemy shows mercy and gives her water, she is indebted to the very person she hates above all else.
But this doesn’t need to be a James Bond-like action plot for the stakes to be high. Next we’ll look at an example from a domestic drama.
The (doomed) promise of a perfect family gathering
Your main character, Harlan, long estranged from his family, has returned to his childhood home in Michigan for Thanksgiving. His mother, Beatrice, has terminal cancer and has asked the whole family to gather. In private, she’s asked her oldest son to “make this day special for me.” She emphasizes how important it is to have her boys back home for one last Thanksgiving. Even though Harlan has vowed never to speak with his brother, Mickey, again, and dreads going back to Michigan, he feels guilty for abandoning his mother and never being there for her during her illness. So, in the end, he promises her she will have a “perfect Thanksgiving.”
Mickey owes Harlan money, and when they meet again at the family home, he has the gall to ask for more. When Harlan refuses, Mickey threatens to leave the party at once, and thereby ruin the special occasion for their mother. Harlan doesn’t want to give his brother more money, but he also can’t risk Mickey leaving and breaking Beatrice’s heart.
Harlan’s desire is to please his mother one last time, because he feels guilty for prioritizing his new life in New York over her. This desire hits an obstacle in the form of his brother, Mickey, who seemingly cares more about his own desire (money) than his own mother’s feelings.
Dreams and dread — the bread and butter of storytelling
What unites Rachel X and Harlan? They exist in very different fictional genres, but in both cases, they are motivated by strong feelings. Rachel X doesn’t risk her life crossing the desert to ask Dr. Bishop a few questions; no, she wants to kill him or die trying. Harlan doesn’t return to Michigan simply because his mother says, “pretty please”; he returns because she’s dying and he feels guilty.
The point is this: Strong feelings translate into compelling character motivation, and that’s the foundation for interesting fiction.
”Compelling stories (in other words, stories with high stakes) tend to dwell in the outer reaches of the motivational contiuum. They deal in the realm of characters’ dreams and dreads, rather than with mere expectations.”— Michael Kardos, The Art and Craft of Fiction
I learned the term motivational continuum from Michael Kardos, and when I first read it, I was a little intimidated by the term. It sounds like something from a psychoanalysis textbook (which just goes to show how many psycholanalysis textbooks I’ve actually read).
But once you see it as a graphic, it’s pretty simple. Kardos has it on a straight line – I see the continuum as a kind of mountain with a pit of despair (dread) at the bottom, a baseline plateau (expectation), followed by a rise upward (to dreams). Like this:
Characters motivated by expectations won’t hold our attention; they need to be motivated by dreams or dread — the strongest positive or negative emotions.
The baseline is “expectation.” As we move through our daily lives, we are mostly motivated by expectation: I will go to my local coffee shop and order a coffee and it will taste pretty good.
But we’ll also have certain hopes and fears: I hope my boss recognizes the hard work I did on this presentation. I fear she’ll give me that new project and I’ll be overwhelmed.
Even if these everyday hopes and fears can cause delight or stress, they aren’t dramatic enough as primary drivers of fiction. That’s not to say that fears, expectations, and hopes aren’t important. They’re essential. But for the story to be compelling to readers, your main character’s primary motivation must be based on stronger stuff: dread or dreams.
Rachel X dreams of avenging her partner’s death and killing Dr. Bishop.
Harlan dreads what will happen to his mother if she doesn’t get the perfect Thanksgiving that she’s asked for.
Brainstorming character motivations and obstacles that match
I’ve focused on the strongest emotions, because, as I said at the beginning of this post, I tend to avoid them. But I’m not suggesting fiction must only deal in strong emotions. That would result in, at best, melodrama or, at worst, an exhausting, insane world of crazy characters, constantly feeling only the most frenzied emotions.
Good fiction includes a range of emotions that build to a climax.
In both story examples above – Rachel X’s adventure and Harlan’s domestic drama – we can expect to see characters draw on the full motivational continnum. But how do we discover the full range of motivations a character experiences in the course of a story?
In The Art and Craft of Fiction, Michael Kardos recommends brainstorming a character’s dreads, fears, expectations, hopes, and dreams.
Then, he goes on, imagine what obstacles can:
- Thwart expectations
- Dash hopes and dreams
- Stir fears and dreads
When you have your list, you should be able to prioritize the obstacles. An obstacle that thwarts an expectation is unlikely to serve as the climax of your story. But one that stirs your character’s worst dread (or makes it come true) – that’s more likely to result in a satisfying finale.
I would also recommend checking the list against the character’s most powerful motivation — their controlling desire — to make sure that the smaller emotions (and the obstacles that get in the way) connect to the thing the character wants the most.
For example, Rachel X might want a drink of water, but even that connects with her hope to survive long enough so that she can fulfill her dream of killing Dr. Bishop.
When I work on a new story, I refer back to several methods of building character. I used to dream of having one tool to rule them all, but over time I’ve come to realize that the wonderful thing about the craft of fiction is how rich it is. Kardos’s motivational continuum is only one of many tools I keep in my toolbox. If I’m stuck and this method doesn’t help me, I look to another.
In the end what matters is not the method but the outcome. Is my story compelling readers to turn the page? Taking a close look at character motivation can be the key to unlocking the drama you need in your fiction.