Character motivation is also part of the OADA model (see my August 25 and Sept. 2 posts). Fiction writing classes often emphasize the importance of knowing what the protagonist wants. What the protagonist wants gives focus to the story and forms a basis for whatever motivation s/he might have. All characters have wants even though it’s the protagonist’s wants that the story centers on.
The truth is that wants say a lot about a person; they can be incredibly telling. For example, suppose one of my middle-age characters has wanted to be a successful novelist all of her adult life, yet has failed to complete her first manuscript. We immediately know that she is not applying herself; no one has to tell us this. More telling is when we learn she has no plan to achieve what she wants. She is either a person who can delude herself or she is trying to delude others.
Some wants have a time limit. Suppose my nineteen-year-old character wants to break into major league baseball. He has joined a minor league team and is doing all the right things. However, we all know he only has a limited number of years to make it into the majors. That’s the nature of professional sports. It also happens to be pretty typical of other pursuits, like the performing arts.
Our character’s plans for achieving what s/he wants comprise his forecasted trajectory through the story. If the want is significant enough, at some point it shakes up his routine existence. Also, it is typical that a preliminary trajectory may be altered along the way. The character may realize that the grind of going to medical school, for instance, is more than he bargained for. Or the wannabe thespian character may decide to leave New York City after years of disappointing audition outcomes. Characters, like people in the real world, should be a work-in-progress. We learn from our mistakes; we try new things knowing they may not work for us; and we have varying levels of risk tolerance at different ages. Adult wants can be tied to human traits such as determination, work ethic, biases, beliefs, talents, and life styles.
How much of the above an author wants to deal with in a story is s/he’s call. However, a common complaint from fiction readers is that too many of our characters are overused. I think much of this stems from using simplified character. Humans are complex; we don’t always know what we want and we certainly can have multiple wants – sometimes conflicting wants. Our wants can be short-term and long-term. Logically, the short-term is more about intermediate wants whereas the long term is about goals and dreams. That said, many characters (like people) move their dreams into the short term. I once met a young lady working in a NYC smoothie shop who had been there six years trying to break into theater. After I made my purchase and left it occurred to me: how many more years was she willing to try before she either succeeded or gave up?
Interestingly, there can be interplay between wants and self-identity. Our character may desperately want a big house on a hill, a CEO position at a big company, a few million dollars to spend, or to be a star on a TV show. S/he may never feel happy about themselves if they go through life not achieving such goals. On the other hand, some who do achieve their goal allow it to define them. They can’t very well separate who they are from: 1) their occupation, 2) their domicile, 3) their need to be in the public’s eye, or 4) their expensive toys. As an aside, several best-selling authors have mentioned that, despite their photographs on their books and at bookstores, most of their readers wouldn’t recognize them if they were alone in an elevator with them (as many have been at events such as workshops). So, if one strives for fame and fortune, perhaps writing novels is not the optimal career path.
I’ve been focusing my fiction work on characters who are complex and adapt to the events that influence their lives. They have multiple wants and priorities for fulfilling them. They can see opportunities when they present themselves. They also fail. In contrast, it’s easy to find many drama series on TV that have grown stale. The reason is clear: even though the characters appear to have their wins and losses over many episodes, they never really change. I insist on one quality for all my protagonists: they must learn from their mistakes.