Concerning Writers: Try and make me

Edited screenshot from New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

“We never fully understand other people’s motivations in real life. In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motivations with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons why people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.” —Orson Scott Card

My story sucks and my characters are boring.”

Last time I said this to myself, I really thought hard about why it was the case; I had an interesting world, some quirky characters, and a plot to die for (literally). What was missing?

After taking a look at some of my favourite books, television shows, and movies, I figured out what it was: motivation.

Go on, try and make them.

My characters had no reason for doing what they were doing. The plot might have been interesting, but the stakes weren’t high if my characters wanted nothing. Are they out to save the world? That’s all well and good, but purely altruistic characters are boring (besides Captain America, of course). I don’t want to write about a perfect goody two-shoes, and I’m sure you don’t want to read about one either. That being said, I also don’t want to write about a totally selfish butt. So how do we find a proper balance? Let’s take a look at some of my favourite stories.

The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen’s motivation is twofold: 1) to save her sister, and 2) to stay alive. She doesn’t really care about much else. Thus, her story is incredibly dark and exciting.

Personally, I never felt very attached to Katniss, though. In fact, I didn’t like her very much at all. She found herself in a position where she could make a difference, and all she really cared about was staying alive and keeping her family alive. Almost every brave thing she does as the Mockingjay, she’s forced into doing, and it’s not because she believes in the cause.

When Peeta and Gale are discussing which one of them she’ll choose in the end, Gale says, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.” Not the one she doesn’t want to hurt the most, not the one she loves the most… the one she can’t survive without. Interesting wording that points towards her constant survival mode.

The Lord of the Rings

Frodo Baggins’s motivation is to save the Shire. The stakes are high; this is his whole world we’re talking about. Frodo is pretty selfless as it’s clear during the journey that he thinks he will end up sacrificing himself to destroy the ring.

Purely altruistic characters are boring (besides Captain America, of course).

Interestingly enough, Frodo is not the most interesting character in this story. Samwise Gamgee is. Sam’s motivation? To stay by his best friend’s side. In other words, love. Sam’s love drives him to become the true hero of the ring’s journey to Mordor.

Fullmetal Alchemist

Edward Elric’s motivation is to get his brother’s body back, so Alphonse’s soul doesn’t have to be attached to an unfeeling suit of armour any more. This is the entire force behind their story; even though greater things are happening around them, I want to keep cheering on the Elric brothers in their quest to find the philosopher’s stone. Keep the camera turned on them; I don’t want to look away.

Ed and Al are, in my mind, a perfect balance of motivations. They want to have a positive impact on the world and make it better, but they also want Al’s body (and Ed wouldn’t mind getting his arm and leg back) and will do almost anything to get it.

Plus they’re just so darn loveable.

Like Orson Scott Card says, the nice thing about fiction, unlike real life, is that we can completely understand what’s going on in our characters’ minds. Go on, try and make them.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Commander at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She is the executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is often preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron