In every scene of your novel, you have a lead character, and you can get inside this character’s head. But how do you handle the supporting characters? How do you work them into your scene?
Kyle posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am a little confused with how non-POV characters are supposed to be properly included in the magical “motivation-reaction unit”. If the reaction part must include reaction from the POV character, where does a different character fit in? An antagonist character will fit in the motivation part, but what about a supporting character that is helping the POV character? I don’t want to swith point of view too rapidly for fear of confusing the reader, but I’d also like to include secondary characters in my scenes more often.
Randy sez: For those of you who are just joining us and aren’t sure what a “motivation-reaction unit” is, you can get up to speed instantly by reading my article, “Writing the Perfect Scene.”
Just to clarify Kyle’s question, the “reaction” part of the MRU is everything that the point-of-view (POV) character does, says, thinks, and feels. The “motivation” part of the MRU is everything else that any other character does or says and everything happening in the environment.
So both the antagonist and any other supporting characters are classified as part of the “motivation.”
This of course seems very weird, because aren’t motivations supposed to be thoughts of the POV character? The answer is yes, they are in a different context, which is why I’ve never liked the term “motivation-reaction unit.” The word “motivation” has multiple meanings, and in this context, it means “anything other than what the POV character does, says, thinks, or feels.”
My rule in writing is to show each character in a separate paragraph. If the paragraph is focusing on the POV character, then the paragraph is a “reaction”. If the paragraph focuses on anyone else or anything else, then it’s a “motivation.”
It really doesn’t matter whether a character is the antagonist or merely a supporting character. Either way, anything they say or do is a “motivation.”
Just as an example, let’s make up a few snippets of an imaginary scene involving three characters whom I’ll give the random names, Scarlett, Ashley, and Rhett:
Scarlett grabbed for Ashley’s hand, wondering how she could convince him. “Oh, Ashley, darling. If you marry me, I’ll be the happiest of women!”
Ashley stepped back. “No. I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m the wrong guy for you. You’re a miserable, greedy, grasping, selfish bitch, Scarlett! You deserve somebody like . . .”
“Like me,” Rhett said. “I’m a miserable, greedy, grasping, selfish jerk. Scarlett and I would be perfect together.”
Scarlett blushed scarlet. “Oh, no, Captain Butler! How could you say such a thing?”
Randy sez: Scarlett is the POV character. This is obvious from paragraph 1, where we hear her thoughts. The first and fourth paragraph are “reactions” because they focus on Scarlett.
It’s hard to say whether Ashley or Rhett is the antagonist in this scene, and it hardly matters. All that matters is that neither one is Scarlett. Paragraphs 2 and 3 are “motivations.” One focuses on Ashley, the other on Rhett. It’s quite fine to have two or more paragraphs of “motivation” in a sequence, each focusing on a different character.
Fiction is like a game of ping pong as seen from one side of the table. The action switches from the camera side (the POV character) to the opposite side (any of the other characters). When the ball is on the camera side of the net, we call that a “reaction.” When the ball is on the other side of the net, we call that a “motivation.” It really doesn’t matter how many players are on the other side of the net. All that matters is that the camera side only has one player — the POV character.
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