Does the Reader need to know the Character's motivations?

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Does the Reader need to know the Character's motivations?

1LShelby
Apr. 16, 7:42pm

Okay, so someone is reading a story I wrote in limited omniscient pov, and they say: "I don't understand the character's motivation".

I'm afraid my initial reaction was to think "And so?"

I know when I'm watching dramas, I frequently don't know exactly what a character is thinking, or why they did x. I just assume that I'll figure it out later.

But, on the other hand, I was watching a drama where the heroine was writing a screenplay and making motivations clearer is one of the things that she was told to do. (And although it frequently seems to me that screenwriters get novel writing very wrong, it seems like they really ought to get screenwriting right, at the very least.)

So... maybe a whole lot more thought is going into showing motivation than I really realize when I'm watching?

But clearly one can get away with not having the motivations be obvious at least some of the time. So when does it work, and when doesn't it work.

2slarken
Apr. 16, 9:46pm

I think you answered your own question when you wrote "I just assume that I'll figure it out later."

Readers need to connect with the characters, and understanding their motivations is one of the ways to do that.

You don't necessarily need to spell it out right from the beginning, but it does need to become clear as the story progresses.

Screenwriting is different, BTW, because it can *show* things that can help viewers understand a character's motivations.

In literature, you only have the words on the paper, so you need to find other ways to communicate that motivation.

3gilroy
Apr. 17, 7:49am

I think you should make the characters motivations (Semi)obvious based on their words and actions. I don't think you need to come out and state "This is my motivation." But what they observe, what they feel, how they react to other's talk, all should be linked to what is moving them through the story. To me, it's part of what makes the character more three-dimensional.

As writers, we have more ways to show a character's motivation than the visual mediums of TV and movies. Even if the character isn't our primary narrator(1), we can take a moment to maybe have the narrator question why the character smells like they haven't showered in 3 days, or that their hair is bedraggled, or something.

Obviously, some characters are going to be about misdirection (especially in mystery books) but sometimes, that's the fun of the character. They're pushing for point a, but keep directing reader and narrator to point g.

---
(1) -- I'm using the term narrator to refer to the point of view of the writing. Because this point of view may or may not be the protagonist of the story.

4paradoxosalpha
Bearbeitet: Apr. 17, 9:20am

Some (perceived) motivation is what differentiates a character from other sorts of objects in a story. It's okay for motivation to be enigmatic or misleading sometimes. But a story full of people taking apparently unmotivated actions is likely to frustrate readers.

That said, I have enjoyed books where the protagonist's motives were often opaque, such as Cisco's The Divinity Student. But my tastes are unusual.

5reading_fox
Apr. 17, 1:57pm

How well do any of us know our own motivations? It's seldom a single driver but a mix and balance of opportunities and risk.

That said, the more dramatic the action the more I as a reader want to know why a character's done something, particularly for crime style genres. I'm very much not a fan of an antagonist who is 'just evil' and so does things because they can. Most (every?) people do things because they perceive a benefit from them, satisfy some form of desire. If I as a reader can't understand that character's desire I'm not likely to understand them as person and so won't be engaged with them or interested in reading about them, and hence likely to put the book down and read something else.

The link between a specific action, and obtaining the result is the interesting and varied part, often subject to mis-direction. Some characters are notably less intelligent than others and don't always make the best decisions, but it should be clear to the reader (eventually) what they were trying to achieve. Likewise very clever characters might perceive a very long-term goal achieved through non-obvious actions, and the reader may need some assistance in following this.

The short answer is yes I as a reader do want/need to understand all the important character's motivations.

6Marissa_Doyle
Apr. 17, 2:46pm

Have you ever had a look at Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, Conflict? It's a good examination of the question. (Hint: the answer is yes.)

7LShelby
Apr. 18, 11:12pm

Thank you everyone for your answers. :)

This is the "operations manual" I'm putting together based on your responses:

1) Motivations can be pretty complicated and are frequently obscure, so it is not reasonable for the reader to expect to understand them all immediately. They will, however, want to feel confident that characters actually do have motivations.

2) The more "dramatic"/"significant" an action is, the more forceful the reader's desire to understand the underlying motivations is likely to be.

3) By the end of the story, the reader should have gained a reasonably good understanding of all the major characters motivations, or the story will probably feel incomplete to them.

That sound about right to everyone?

>6 Marissa_Doyle:
Nope I haven't bumped into that one, yet. I just checked my library catalog and they have it as an ebook, so I have tagged it to read later. :)

>2 slarken: "Screenwriting is different, BTW, because it can *show* things that can help viewers understand a character's motivations.

In literature, you only have the words on the paper, so you need to find other ways to communicate that motivation."


I would say that it is easier to convey motivations using words on paper than it is by showing pictures. The words can easily go inside the character's head. The camera cannot.

But sometimes we don't want to go into a particular character's head for whatever reason, and then I guess we lose the advantage.

8slarken
Apr. 19, 1:31am

>7 LShelby: "That sound about right to everyone?"

Yep ;)

"I would say that it is easier to convey motivations using words on paper than it is by showing pictures. The words can easily go inside the character's head. The camera cannot."

That's true too. They're different mediums with different tools. Film can do things words can't, while words can do things film can't. So with different tools come different techniques.

But in the end, both mediums need to find ways to make those motivations known.

9LShelby
Apr. 21, 11:18am

I've never worked in film. But I do actually have a little bit of experience working in pictures. I've done a graphic novel. (Mind you, I won't claim that it's a particularly good graphic novel, although one of my nieces does claim it as her favorite of all my stuff she's read, for whatever that is worth.)

But not explaining enough has always been one of my weaknesses as a writer. I'm not very good at remembering that the reader doesn't know the characters and the world inside-out and backwards the way I do. So I rely on betareaders to let me know where I need to slip in more explanations.

But... what was it Patricia C. Wrede says about betareaders: they are very good at identifying that there is a problem, and very bad at identifying what the problem is?

When my husband gets lost, it usually means I need to go back a couple paragraphs before he got confused and describe something that happened earlier a little more clearly. When he says the story "is dragging" that means that the direction of the story is not obvious and this is messing with the reader's sense of forward momentum, and I need to drop hints to the reader why what is happening is important.

Unclear motivations have occasionally been a part of the "is dragging" phenomenon, but rarely a significant part. I guess I'm used to this whole motivation thingy just flowing naturally out of the interior dialog. When there isn't any interior dialog...

The betareader who complained directly about the lack of motivation is a new betareader, I don't know her well enough to 'read' her feedback as easily as do my husband. But I think maybe she is more sensitive (impatient) over this issue, and so she has hit on a difficulty that I am having with that particular pov more quickly, when my husband didn't notice anything wrong until much later in the book when his sense of "something's missing" was much harder to identify. (I knew my husband thought there was a problem but couldn't express it clearly, that's why I sent the story out to other betareaders.)

I'm wondering now if my graphic novels and screenplays also suffer from this difficulty. I remember I had to expand a few scenes in Flag in Flames to allow me to clarify things based on betareader feedback, but I no longer remember which exact clarifications were requested.

...

So, ways of showing motivations that don't involve going into someone's head:
1) Dialog. (May require the creation of an opportune moment.)
2) Flashbacks to key motivation creating moments.
3) More time spent depicting relevant emotional reactions. (May require the creation of opportune moments.)

Did I miss anything?

I doubt I will just "instinctively" know what I need to use these techniques. I may need to run through the story in the editing stage and create one of my little plot maps: Character does x. In order for the reader to understand why, the reader must know y and z.

::lightbulb!::
I did exactly this in response to betareader feedback on the pencils of one of my in-progress graphic novels, only I thought then that the problem was just with that particular story. And it's been so long that I had forgotten the details, until writing the previous paragraph reminded me.

It's not a problem for just that story, its a problem for whenever I can't, for whatever reason, show the interior dialog of my key players. I need to do this for everything that isn't written in first or tight third.