Sunday, December 9, 2012

Character Motivation

I've been writing my blog for about ten months now and I haven't ventured into talking about the craft of storytelling, until now.

One of the reasons I've shied away from the topic is because there are so many amazing blogs out there dedicated to writing. I've also stayed away from the topic because I'm still in the learning stage myself and I didn't feel that I'd have anything to teach. But I realized I'll forever be in the learning stage - when do we ever stop learning? Why wait to share what I've learned?

Since I've started studying the craft of storytelling, something has happened to me. I can no longer watch a movie, or read a book, and NOT dissect it to discover all the little nuances of storytelling in it. 

Some stories are stellar and I'm left in awe of the skill and talent of the author. But some are not-so-stellar, and I'm left feeling a little cheated by wasting my time. Okay, "wasting" my time is a little harsh - as long as I learn something from the poorly written story, then it wasn't a waste of time, right?

Two weeks ago I watched a pre-WWII era movie called "Five Little Peppers In Trouble." I don't know if you're familiar with "The Five Little Peppers," but they were a series of feature films created in 1939 and 1940, based on books by Margaret Sidney, about five children who grew up under the care of their widowed mother and were "rescued" by a wealthy gentlemen who took an interest in their well-being. The films are very cute and leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.

This particular movie is about the time the Five Little Peppers go to boarding school, and their trouble while there. The whole movie is based on this premise. The only problem is - there's no legitimate need or motivation for the Peppers to go to the boarding school. The young boy who lives with them (the grandson of the wealthy gentleman who cares for them) has a legitimate reason for going, but there's no reason the Peppers need to go - and it bothered me!

Have you ever watched a movie, or read a book, and suddenly a character is doing something that makes no sense? It tears you out of the story world. You find yourself frustrated because the story no longer holds believability.

Everything that happened to the Peppers at the boarding school was unbelievable, because there was no reason they needed to be there! I kept asking myself: why don't they just go home? They don't have to stay! I didn't get emotionally invested in the story because there was no proper motivation for the characters and it left me frustrated and telling myself: it serves them right, if they'd just go home none of this would be happening.

The thing is, it could have been easily dealt with. The author could have come up with a legitimate reason why the Peppers needed to go to the boarding school and I wouldn't have even thought twice about it. If there was motivation behind being there - if circumstances forced them there and they had no other choice - I would have felt sorry for them and become invested in their troubles.

As an author, it reminded me why we need legitimate motivation for the characters in our stories. We can't just pull a character out of one environment, or situation, and put them into another for no apparent reason - if we do, everything that happens to them after that point becomes unbelievable and our reader has no reason to get emotionally involved. They're left frustrated - and the last thing we want our reader to be is frustrated! Frustrated readers throw books against the wall.

As we craft our stories, it's vital that we give proper motivation to everything our characters do - and if you ever plan to send one of your characters to boarding school, please do me a favor and give them a good reason to go!

What about you? Have you ever watched a movie, or read a book, where the characters are doing something that makes no sense? Have you ever heard of the "Five Little Peppers"?


  1. Never heard of that movie. And I'm pretty sure studying craft has ruined some books and movies for me forever!!! :P

  2. Great reminder, Gabrielle. I'm reading a book right now that suffers from this same problem. I was about ready to quit reading it, but I told myself to finish so I can use it as a study in what I DON'T want to do. :)

  3. Not heard of them.
    Phantom of the Opera, WHY does she go back to the Phantom??? He's nuts!!! Yeah, I know she wants to sing, but come ON.


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