What if the characters in your novel don’t want to do what you want them to do? How do you motivate them to do the right thing? How do you do that believably?
Kate posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy! I love the website and all the books, all the information I’ve read has been very helpful. But I need help. I’ve been reading a lot of books (maybe to many) in regards to characters. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I’m in need of a better understanding (more simplified) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn’t have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he’s regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.
But I can’t figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what’s the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.
I also can’t figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC’s wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?
As I’m sure you can imagine, since I’m missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can’t figure out the theme.
Can you help me Randy?
Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?
Randy sez: Good questions, Kate! It sounds like you’re well on your way to designing a strong novel. You’re very close, in fact.
The problem you’re facing is that your lieutenant really, really wants to get home to the woman he loves, so he can tell her (and hopefully something will come of that). So why in the world would he do anything to jeopardize that Goal? Why would he risk his life right at the end of the story, to save somebody he doesn’t know?
That doesn’t make sense. As a novelist, it’s your job to make it make sense.
Here’s how you do that.
The missing link in your explanation above is something I call “Values.” Values are the magic key to creating 3-D characters. What’s a Value? I’ll give you an example, and then the definition will be clear.
The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s classic novel about a Mafia kingpin, Vito Corleone. Vito is a complicated guy. He runs a small underworld kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Vito rules by helping people. If a poor widow comes to him in tears because she’s being evicted from her apartment, Corleone can make the evil landlord change his mind. All he asks is that the widow gives him honor. Why? Because honor is the currency of his kingdom. A man who has honor has everything. Money, power, happiness, all come from honor. Nothing is more important to Vito Corleone than his honor. He would kill to maintain it.
But Corleone is also a Sicilian, and therefore his family is supreme. He would do anything for his family. Vito has three sons, each with problems. The oldest, Sonny, is impetuous and quick-tempered and insolent. The second, Freddie, is a bit of a sissy. The third, Michael, is bright, intelligent, disciplined—but he scorns the family business and plans to make his own way in the world without his family and without being a criminal. Still, Vito Corleone loves all of his sons. Nothing is more important than family. He would give up his own life for any of his sons.
But that raises a terrible problem early in the novel. A seedy thug named Sollozzo comes to Corleone with a business proposition. Sollozzo wants help in getting police protection for his heroin operation. And long-term, he’ll also need help from the corrupt judges in Corleone’s pocket. Sollozzo offers a generous cut of his profits in exchange for the protection that only Vito Corleone can give him.
Corleone believes that this will endanger all of his other operations. Corleone’s consigliori and his oldest son (Sonny) are at the meeting, but Corleone doesn’t consult them in this decision. He simply refuses Sollozzo’s offer, explaining his reasons—that it would destroy all that he has worked to build.
But Sonny doesn’t like this, and he blurts out a question to Sollozzo that makes it clear that he’s interested. This is a huge mistake. Sonny has just dishonored his father by questioning his judgment.
What should Vito Corleone do? He loves his son. But his son has just violated his honor. His son should be banished from the organization—immediately. Corleone must make an instant decision. He chooses to make a joke of his son’s rash comment and then repeats his decision—no, he will have nothing to do with narcotics.
That decision drives the entire novel.
Three months later, Sollozzo’s henchmen shoot Vito Corleone in the street, nearly killing him. Their hope is to get Vito out of the way so they can do a deal with Sonny. But Vito survives, barely, and the rest of the novel tells how he claws his way back to power, pulling his youngest son Michael into the family business.
All because of one decision. One very difficult decision. Difficult because of Vito Corleone’s two clashing Values:
- Nothing is more important than honor.
- Nothing is more important than family.
Those can’t both be the most important thing. When they conflict, Corleone must choose between them. And nobody knows what that decision will be until he makes it.
Now let’s define a Value. A Value is anything that your character would put in the blank in this sentence:
“Nothing is more important than ____________.”
When your character has only one Value, then he’s boring and one-dimensional. When he has two or more Values that can conflict, then the character becomes vastly more interesting.
Kate, you’ve already given me enough information to define two of your lieutenant’s Values:
- Nothing is more important than avoiding abandonment.
- Nothing is more important than the woman I love.
To that, I’d add a Value that most people have:
- Nothing is more important than staying alive.
Note that #1 and #2 are in conflict, so that’s good. But it’s not enough. None of the Values above will explain why your lieutenant would endanger his life to rescue somebody he doesn’t know. If you’re going to explain that, you’ll need to give him a fourth Value that would drive his decision. And then you’ll need to show your reader that Value throughout the novel, giving enough reasons for the reader to believe it’s a strong Value. It’s your choice exactly what that Value should be, and it’s your choice why he should hold it so strongly. The art of fiction is the art of making those choices.
Once you do that, then at the end, when you have multiple conflicting Values, the reader can’t know how your character will decide, but a choice to be altruistic will be believable.
This issue is discussed at some length in my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, in chapter 6, “Nothing Is More Important Than Characters.”
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.
This is very helpful! Thank you. 🙂
Andi L. Gregory says
Wonderful post. It’s something that I’ve seen within my novels, but also something I haven’t outright named for my characters. I think this is a wonderful way to get to know your characters better and be able to show who they are and what they stand for throughout a novel.
It was very helpful, a new method for me to try. Thank you!
Hi Randy. My name is Rachael and I am a graphic artist in Southern California. In 2013 I started having dreams and quickly realized it was some type of a story. I wrote down pieces of it in journals and notebooks or whatever I could find handy for almost 2 years. The dreams stopped. I collected all my journals and writings and stuck them in a box. Fast forward to 2015 and I finally have some time to put this thing together. I’ve been researching how to write a novel and out of all the people and places I’ve researched, I found you, thank God!
There is so much information out there and so many courses, but my gut keeps saying that I should just stick with “Writing Fiction For Dummies” and your Snowflake software. Because I
learn best audibly, I wanted to also get your lecture series Fiction 101. I was wondering if you have a special on your lecture series or a coupon code that I could use?
Thank you again for your wonderful teaching tools and I will let you know how it goes! 🙂
Taren Randal says
What do you think of a traumatic event changing the values of a character? A defense lawyer has a son who is murdered by a criminal who was released by the same kind of technicality that he uses to get his clients off the hook. Now he can’t seem to do his job.