In a BYU devotional, Professor Camille Fronk once said:
I found it fascinating to learn where a potter focuses his attention [at first]. He does not concentrate on the outward appearance of the vessel. He knows that the outside will take care of itself when the inner space is formed. In other words, the form of the inner chamber determines the appearance of the exterior.
This fact was used to make a religious comparison, but what can it have to do with writing?
Okay, I know I’ve hit on the issue of character motivation more than once, and maybe that’s because I’m still figuring out how to nail it in my own writing. The way I see it, the main character’s inner life—deepest wishes, greatest fears, way of viewing the world based on unique character traits and past experience—these all have to shape the action in the story. If you are a character-driven writer, it may seem obvious that your character’s heart is what creates the outward appearance of the plot. If you are a plot-driven writer, this idea is more tricky.
I’ve said this before, too: Readers can tell the difference between characters whose motivations create plot and characters who conform to plot without any deep or especially believable motivations. As a freelance reader of slush for a local publishing company, I often write comments like these on manuscript evaluations: “I don’t understand why the character is doing this here,” or “I don’t believe the character would totally change his course based on a vague feeling of intuition. It doesn’t ring true,” or “I don’t think this character would act this way without some outward instigation.” I feel like almost every evaluation turns into a chorus of, “WHAT IS THE CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION HERE?”
And yet, readers have marked the same observations on my manuscripts. When they do, I find that those passages were written when I was excited about the next plot point and I wanted to get my character there. I hadn’t stopped to think what my character would be thinking, feeling, and reacting to in the present, unaware of what plot twist the author had in store for her next.
Do you know what’s going on inside your main character’s heart and head when you sit down to write?
If not, how do you figure it out?