Why Characters Do What They Do #amwriting

As if it isn’t enough that we writers have to figure out what characters do, we also have to figure out why characters do what they do. Can’t they do anything for themselves?

Some writers say, yes, their characters take over and do stuff and they (the writers) only need to watch and write it down. If purgatory is true, I’m going to do a fair stretch in purgatory for the sin of envy committed against those writers.

Sometimes my characters oblige me, but sometimes they just sit there and won’t budge unless I put 4 thousand volts through them.

Sometimes they even get cheeky, and they’re like, “Oh, you need me to go there and do that in order for the plot to work out, eh? What’s my motivation?”

I’m like, “You’re motivation is, I can stick you in a drawer for twenty years or so, chummy.”

But that never works.

If I’m stuck that way, and I need a character to go there and do that and the character can’t think of a reason why, it often helps to go back over the other characters’ story arcs and connections.

Say I need for Joe to be at The Sundown Cafe on the Winter Solstice so he’ll be there when Brenda, who turns out to know a tidbit of information that will help Joe find the maguffin, comes in. Joe’s like, “Why? You never put me there before. Why would I go there now?” I can look back and see that his next door neighbor and friend who carries a subplot is a Pagan, and I can have the neighbor invite him to a Solstice gathering at the Cafe. Brenda is a reporter, and she comes to do a human interest story on the gathering, the neighbor having submitted it through her email address as a possible item for her. BOOM!

Sometimes, a character’s motivation can be their own, but sometimes it can be a side-effect of somebody else’s motivation. Remember the connections between the characters, and the six-degrees-of-separation thing.

If nothing else, it might drive your character so nuts he says, “Oh, never mind! I’ll go there and do that and here’s why!”

I learned the power of simple aggravation from parenting.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Make somebody do something in terms of somebody else’s motivation.




I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Why Characters Do What They Do #amwriting

  1. Jane

    December 22, 2014 at 7:49am

    Sounds like herding cats!

    I can’t get going on a character until I can hear his/her voice properly. Then, when I know what they might say next, I have a better chance of figuring out how to push them around a little plot=wise.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 22, 2014 at 8:02am

      Me, too! That’s why I like the “ask them 10 questions and free-write their answers” exercise. It helps me dig in and brings their voices out. Gee, that sounded a lot more grisly than I meant for it to….

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. JazzFeathers

    December 22, 2014 at 4:10pm

    Characters are the best part of a story and the reason is just that: they ask a lot of questions of you and you need to answer all those questions if you want to tell the story in any logical and meaningful way.

    And it’s so fun when they know excactly why they do something and they guide the story, but you have to figure everything out. Sometimes it’s a very long process for me, but I have to tell you: I always learn somethign new on that journey 🙂

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 22, 2014 at 6:06pm

      That’s a different way of looking at it, JazzFeathers, and it’s a way I like: THEY know, and I have to figure it out. As for learning something new, that’s so true. You’re never exactly the same person after finishing a book as you were when you began it. Thanks for visiting!

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