Creating characters is one of the challenges and satisfactions of writing. We need to devise lifelike personalities for our story people, and we need to figure out why they act the way they do. Characters’ motivations for their actions are more important than their personality type. That WHY takes the character out of the ordinary.
In Practical Tips For Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr states, “Some of the most common failures in motivating characters or plots occur from the following:
1. Foolish and or spontaneous actions.
2. Arbitrary decisions and/or behavior (making the behavior purposeful instead of arbitrary makes the motivation believable.)
3. Actions prompted by passive needs or emotions.”
We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. Like with personality, the defining element is WHY the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though they must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.
Characters do change, of course, but the motivation for that change must be shown. Some basic personality traits do not change under ordinary conditions, so if a smart character becomes stupid or slow, he has to suffer some sort of trauma, as in Regarding Henry. Nor can a slow character suddenly become smart without intervention. The movie Phenomenon is a good example of how that can happen.
When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The plot and the character should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate. Character motivation, in many instances, is the plot — what the characters do and why.
In Story Robert McKee writes: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.” And often, in that hidden nature, we find our character’s motivation.