Monday, January 25, 2010

Burning desires

We've done a lot of talking around here about motivating yourself as a writer. In the end, no matter how many tricks you employ, no matter how much you beat yourself up to get the words on the page, there's only one thing that will drive your novel to completion- and that's your burning desire to see it finished. Whether you want it finished because you want it to sell, or just to prove to yourself you can do it, or to get a message out to the rest of the world, it makes no difference- one of those things must mean enough to you that you'll bleed, sweat and cry over your manuscript until it's done.

But this is not a post about finishing your novel.

This is a post about making sure the same level of burning desire runs through your story. I'm not talking about the author having an agenda, like I was a couple of weeks ago (a whole other burning desire- have you noticed there are a lot of those in fiction writing?). No, this time I'm talking about character motivation.

Have you ever read a novel that just didn't do it for you? Ever put one down halfway through because you didn't care enough to read the rest? I'll give you an example of one that left me cold within a couple of chapters (oh yes, I will name names!)- THE AUSTRALIAN FIANCE, by Simone Lazaroo. Here's an uplifting little excerpt.

I picked it up a) because it had a lovely cover (I admit, I'm a sucker for a nice cover); b) because she's a local writer, and I like to support local writers as much as I can; and c) because it was set during the Second World War, which is kind of my thing, as you know, and it was set in Singapore and Western Australia- both places I've lived and loved. It seemed to tick all the boxes.

The book tells the tale of a young Singaporean woman who is forced into prostitution after the arrival of the Japanese in Singapore in 1942, and is later rescued by a handsome Australian soldier who takes her home to marry her. But their wartime romance slowly loses its spark as they face up to their glaring lack of common interests, not to mention the ingrained racism of the husband's family and Australian society as a whole. It sounded interesting, but right from the start I found myself disengaged.

Why, I asked myself? Why did I find myself having to labour through half the book, reluctantly, and eventually give up halfway through without caring at all what was going to happen in the end? The writing was just stunningly lovely; the words were beautiful and the imagery was evocative (this may remind you of my comments about my own early drafts, from last week's post). But I didn't care about the characters, and to be honest they didn't seem to care all that much about themselves.

The fiance didn't get much of a look-in as far as character development was concerned- he was just another piece of scenery, really, so I didn't care at all about him. And if I didn't care about him, then it was virtually impossible for me to care about their relationship. The biggest problem, though, was that the main character, the Singaporean woman, lacked a driving motivation. The story was about her hooking up with this man who could save her from her old life and give her a new one. That's great. But she just didn't seem to care about him. Her motivation throughout the story was one of moving away from her past, instead of moving toward her future. There was nothing she cared about enough to develop good conflict. It wasn't like she absolutely had to go to Australia to save her family from their fate, and that her relationship was therefore an absolute necessity. It wasn't like she was having a baby, so she had to stay with the fiance at all costs, no matter how unhappy she was.

(Side note: Either of these things MAY have happened later in the story, but if they did it wasn't early enough to hold my attention).

I guess what I'm saying is, if at all possible, you want your characters moving forward, towards something they want instead of away from something they don't want. If they desire something passionately, then your reader will desire that too. They'll want to see your character fight and win. They'll stick with you right to the very last page because they'll be invested in the story, and they'll just have to know how it ends.

I'll give you another example of a book that works wonderfully because it has strong character motivation at the core. It's another Australian novel, just to prove that I'm not bashing the local talent for the sake of it (g). This one, which was sent to me by Our Rachel, is PAPER NAUTILUS, by South Australian Nicholas Jose.

It's a uniquely told story, also set in WWII. The structure of the story sees it begin in at the end, in the present, and wind its way back through time to the beginning. It's the tale of a man raising his brother's child after his brother dies in the war.

Now, the motivation in this story is not completely clear until the end, because of course the journey "starts", per se, on the last page. But I list it as a great example because regardless of the structure, the motivation of the main character leaps off the page right from the start. He is a quiet man, but he's fiercely, ferociously protective of his brother's daughter, and determined to give her a good, happy life. His whole sense of being is dedicated to this purpose. It's not until the last pages of the book that the reader understands exactly where that motivation came from, but by then it's more of an "ahhh, that makes sense" revelation. It's actually a very simple story, a very short novel, but a very powerful one indeed. Even though the story winds backwards, the character is always moving forward, always focussed on one thing, and completely emotionally invested in that thing.

I've struggled now and again with my character's motivation. I've had Bill going to London to escape his past, I've had him planning his own suicide because he can't live without Jared, I've had him trying to hunt down his missing son and restore balance to his world- but in the end, all of those motivations linked back to Bill running away from, or clinging onto, the past.

Now I've shifted my focus, not far, to Bill's grandchild, who is due to be born in London in the middle of a warzone. The future of his family. The only thing that will be left of his family before long. Not only does Bill want to make sure he does the right thing by his grandchild, but the child is in imminent danger from the Blitz air-raids, and his daughter-in-law is stubbornly refusing to get out of harm's way. This is guaranteed to raise conflict.

I'm still not totally sure I'm there yet, but right now it's working better than the backwards-looking motivations my characters had before.

Either way, I know that as long as my characters are passionate about what they want, and if their passions are threatened and challenged by circumstance, I'll be able to keep my readers invested enough that they'll keep turning the pages right to the end.


  1. Too true, Claire. I can't think of any book that worked for me if I didn't care about the character. Character motivation is a huge factor but more to the point the character has to care about _something_. I love the re-shifting of Bill's priorities toward the grandchild. It is another move that seems so obvious in hindsight, which tells me it's the right move. If that makes any sense, lol.

  2. So true - not just character motivation but their motivation to move *towards the future* and not away from the past. I wonder if that`s maybe the trap I`ve fallen into with Rose, and why I haven`t written so much the past couple of weeks. Hmmm...