Last year one of my blog posts on writing was accepted for publishing by KingdomPen Magazine, an awesome site dedicated to helping young authors grow as writers.
Before it was published, though, they made a few revisions in an effort to clean up the message of the post and make it more appealing to their audience. Interesting fact, all sites, and magazines reserve the right to edit material submitted to them in this way, something I only learned after studying the submission pages of a few sites.
After they edited and published my article I took the revised piece and read it next to my original. And gained a lot of insight into my own writing technique. It was truly an edifying experience.
Then I thought, "I should share this cool opportunity with the gang". Give others the chance to learn from this experience. Which is why this week, I have re-posted both the original version of my article and the KP edited version below so that we can take a look at the changes made, why they were made, and what all we can learn from them.
Original Title: Motivations: What Your Characters Want, And Why You Should Keep Them From Getting It
By Lindsi McIntyre
It is no secret that character motivations drive plots forward.
Without motivations, our Main Characters will end up as awkward observers to everything that is going on around them. Listless and boring, they will be unable to capture our reader's hearts and carry them through to the end of the story.
Unlike side characters, though, who might be able to get away will smaller, more attainable motivations, our MC's motivations need to be strong enough to carry an entire novel.
But what goes into creating strong character motivations?
THE ROOT OF STRONG MOTIVATIONS
Motivation is desire. It is when our characters, and people in general, want something. The only time we want something is when we don't already have it.
Strong motivations, therefore, come from a lack of something.
Our main characters are missing something very important, something they arguably can't live without. Something they need.
This need is often a combination of both a physical need and an emotional one. For instance, an MC who needs to get away from an abusive relationship, both for the sake of their physical health and their mental health.
However, our character is incapable of acknowledging this need. Otherwise, they'd already be long gone. So, at the beginning of the story, the MC is willing to accept their abusive relationship, perhaps somewhat aware that things aren't right, yet content to let them go on.
Then about two or three chapters in, something changes. Maybe the MC learns that she is pregnant. Maybe she discovers that her significant other has another family, one he treats much better than he treats her. Whatever the case, this incident changes the MC's need into the character's main focus, turning into the thing they want more than anything else. This is commonly known as the Inciting Incident.
Our characters lack of awareness of this need, or flat our refusal to acknowledge it, is what caused their lack of motivation. Now that they are fully aware of the problem, they have to act.
Without this breaking point, our character would have just carried on as she had before. Meaning, without the Inciting Incident, she never would have been made to address her need.
KEEPING A CHARACTER MOTIVATED
Now that our MC has faced her need and it has turned into the thing she wants more than anything else, it is time for change.
But if she just left her abusive partner, it wouldn't make a very interesting novel. True, it might make for a compelling short story, but definitely not a novel.
This is why, in order to keep her motivated, we need someone or something that gets in the way of her getting what she wants. We put things in the story that work against her.
USING OTHER CHARACTERS
This is where our other characters come in.
All of our characters, even the ones with only minor roles, should need something as well, even if it is something tiny. They should all have things they feel they can't live without and should be on their own quests to have those needs met.
In our example, the obvious candidate would be the abusive ex. Maybe his need is to feel superior and our MC is the only one he can do that with. Maybe he can't stand the thought of being rejected. His need will become his motivation to pursue her.
This will strengthen her resolve to flee; creating the dance that will pull our readers through the story.
Of course, other people aren't the only tool in our arsenal.
The thing that keeps our MC from getting what they want doesn't have to be human.
Nature itself can become an obstacle that keeps our characters from getting what they need.
Maybe the tunnel our MC needs to go through collapses on her. Maybe the flood waters rise too fast for her to cross the street safely. Each of these elements would cause just as much conflict as the ex might if he were the one stopping the character from moving forward.
The point is to keep the character from getting what they want. To keep every character from getting what they want. We create an environment where our characters are constantly running into, around, and away from obstacles.
CHARACTER'S MOTIVATIONS CHANGE
The last thing to keep in mind is that a character's motivations can, and will, change. Some of their needs will be met along the way, while new ones will rise up to take their place.
Our MC's motivations will and should change as she changes. They should grow as she grows.
For instance, after the inciting incident, our MC becomes aware of her need to leave her ex if she ever wants to have a healthy life.
How she changes then, will depend on the story we want to tell.
If we want to write a heart-pounding thriller, our MC's ex will pursue her and possibly attack her. Our MC's need to get away from him will then shift into a need to survive, a need to fight back.
But maybe we want to write a heart-warming tale about recovering from abuse. In that case our MC's need to get away might be replaced with a need to avoid ever getting into another abusive relationship. She will close herself off, refusing to be hurt again. This will inevitably trap her just as much as if she had stayed with her ex in the first place. Then someone or something will come along and alert her to this new destructive need of hers, allowing her to see the need for change. At the end of the story, her need will have changed one last time into a desire to reconnect and love again.
Our characters are constantly evolving just as real people would. And it is these changes that make them so relatable, compelling and drive our plots forward.
New Title: Engage Readers by Giving Your Characters Unfulfilled Motivations
By Lindsi McIntyre
Without motivations, protagonists will be awkward observers to the happenings around them. They will be unable to drive the plot and capture readers’ hearts. Although you can sometimes get away with giving side characters smaller, more attainable goals, a protagonist’s incentives need to be strong enough to support an entire novel.
THE ROOT OF STRONG MOTIVATIONS
When characters want something they lack and can’t live without, that’s motivation. This need is often both physical and emotional—such as a protagonist who must escape from an abusive relationship for the sake of her physical and mental health.
However, the character is incapable of acknowledging this need. Otherwise, she would have already broke free. So, at the beginning of the story, she is willing to accept the abusive relationship. Perhaps she senses that the situation isn’t right, yet she’s content to let it continue.
Then, about two or three chapters in, her mindset changes. Maybe she learns she’s pregnant, or she discovers that her boyfriend has another family he treats much better than her. Whatever the case, her need transforms into the main focus, and she desires it more than anything else. This is commonly called the Inciting Incident.
The character’s denial or obliviousness to her need caused complacency. Now that she is fully aware of the problem, she must address it. Without this breaking point, she would have carried on as she had before.
Once the protagonist has faced her need, she will act. But, if she were to simply leave her abusive partner, the novel would be boring. (That might work for a short story, but definitely not a book.) To keep her motivated, she needs an obstacle to prevent her from accomplishing her intent.
All characters, even those with minor roles, should be on their own quests to gain something they desperately need.
Maybe the abusive ex likes to feel superior, and the protagonist is the only person he can manipulate. Maybe he can’t stand the thought of being rejected. This will compel him to pursue her and strengthen her resolve to flee, thus orchestrating the dance that will pull readers through the story.
Of course, other characters aren’t the only tool in our arsenal. The force that opposes the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. Nature itself can hinder characters from obtaining what they need.
Maybe the tunnel the protagonist is traveling through collapses on her. Maybe flood waters rise too fast for her to cross the street safely. Each of these elements would cause as much conflict as the ex might if he were the one stopping her from moving forward.
The point is to keep every character from getting what they seek. You must create an environment where characters are constantly running into, around, and away from obstacles.
Bear in mind that a character’s motivations can, will, and should change. Some needs will be met along the way, while new ones will rise up to replace them as the character grows.
For instance, the protagonist realizes she must ditch her ex to lead a happy life, but how this plays out will depend on the type of story. In a heart-pounding thriller, the ex might chase and attack her. Her striving to get away from him would then shift to a need to survive and defend herself.
In a heartwarming tale about recovering from abuse, the protagonist’s attempts to liberate herself might cause her to avoid all relationships, refusing to be hurt again. This will inevitably trap her as much as if she had stayed with her ex. Then someone or something will come along and alert her to this new destructive need. At the end of the story, her need will morph one last time into a yearning to love again.
Characters continually mature just as real people do. And it is these changes that make them relatable and generate a riveting plot.
So, what did I learn?
Well, I realized pretty quickly that the edited version is much more focused. My thought process can become very fractured, with one thought leading to another until I'm not even on the same topic idea anymore.
My original title, Motivations: What Your Characters Want, And Why You Should Keep Them From Getting It, now with the added benefit of hindsight, seems to cover a very broad topic. Character motivations. The new title, Engage Readers by Giving Your Characters Unfulfilled Motivations, focuses the topic on how those unfulfilled motivations can be used to engage readers.
After figuring this out I have put much more effort into finding the focus of my articles before I start writing them.
Another thing I noticed is that most, if not all of, my original sentences could have been re-written to be shorter. This makes the meaning behind them clearer and gives the overall post a snappier feel. And all without changing the meaning behind them.
The last thing is that my usual sign off of "God bless, Lindsi" was deleted. I think this is because the tone of KP is more formal than the one I am going for here on my own site. So, keeping the tone of the site you want to submit to in mind is definitely a good idea.
All in all, writing and submitting this article to Kingdom Pen Magazine was a great experience. If you've been considering submitting your work to a site, I say go for it. You'll learn a lot!
And I'd love to hear what you thought about my article. Which version did you like better? Did you notice any other changes that we can learn from?