Establishing Characters’ Motives

It’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself before when writing, and certainly one you must answer: what drives your characters? They all want something, just as people in real life want something. It can be love, hatred, power, wealth, knowledge, patriotism, disillusionment, honor, or something else. To help bring characters to life, good and bad, they need to have at least one thing that drives them, which can later on change, but ultimately helps bring the character to life as much as their individual personality traits.

You can begin with basic human emotions or desires and build them into one of many possibilities. As an example, if a character seeks knowledge, it could be knowledge of something or someone or oneself. It’s important for villains to have motivations as well as heroes. In Beowulf the titular hero seeks everlasting glory, while each of the monsters is driven by a dark desire: Grendel by envy (of the Danes celebrating, which links him to his Biblical ancestor, Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy), Grendel’s mother by anger (for the death of her son), and the dragon by greed (a single golden cup was stolen from his treasure hoard).

When characters are driven to commit crimes, they have simple motivations, which have different versions. Sometimes characters with similar motivations act differently upon them, or the other way around. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Danglars wants Edmond’s captaincy while Mondego wants Edmond’s fiancé. So they conspire to frame him for conspiring to help Napoleon Bonaparte. For Danglars it’s a crime of profit; for Mondego it’s one of passion. Villefort realizes there actually is a conspiracy to help the deposed emperor, not involving Edmond but his own father, which would hurt his political ambitions if revealed. So he has imprisoned Edmond without trial to protect himself. Edmond is therefore motivated to enact revenge upon them all.

Often motives can be influenced by characters’ backgrounds and circumstances. One well-known stereotype is the evil twin, who is the protagonist’s mirror image (though sometimes evil twins have facial hair or scars). But in many stories there are simply siblings—not necessarily twins—where one’s good and one’s evil. When the younger is evil, (s)he tends to be envious at not being the oldest and thus the heir. But when the older is evil (not to say (s)he can’t be jealous of the younger sibling), (s)he is proud of being the oldest and heir, to the point of narcissism and arrogance. When there’s more than one sibling, it can lead to middle child syndrome, where the second child feels unloved and/or like an outcast because the third is the “baby” and the first is the heir.

Then there’s the notion of a character foil: someone who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. Foils can be villains like evil twins, but they can be good too. They are similar in one or two ways to a protagonist but in every other way aren’t. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft shares his amazing power of deduction and more, but doesn’t use it to earn a living since, as Sherlock puts it, he lacks ambition and energy, and hates fieldwork.

As I said earlier, motivation can change, especially if a character isn’t sure at the start what drives him or her. Perhaps they are searching for what it is they want out of life. In every case, having motivation drives characters, and thus readers’ investment in them.

Further Reading
  1. Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters.
  2. Marie, Katie. Character motivations and why they are so important.

Happy Veterans Day! Many thanks to all who served!

Victorian Monsters

I’ve always been a fan of horror fiction, and every October I watch scary movies all month long. During my first semester at St. Mary’s College, I took a Freshman Seminar called Victorian Monsters and Modern Monstrosities. Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black introduced us (we came to be known as “Marvelous Monsters”) to six archetypes. With each we read a corresponding literary classic:

  1. Freak – Frankenstein
  2. Madwoman – Jane Eyre
  3. Schizo – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  4. Horrorscape – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  5. Deviant – Dracula
  6. Animagi – The Island of Dr. Moreau

Here are some of my notes from the start of the seminar regarding core themes:

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Indeed these archetypes reflect Victorian social fears and limits. Yet there is something about what’s considered monstrous that draws people in. We delight in feeling terrified. We are interested in the unknown. During Victorian times revolutions were underway in science and philosophy. The establishment clashed with the Enlightenment.

The Freak is considered, as I wrote in my notebook, the “embodiment of cultural anxiety”. Freaks are the ultimate outsiders, who can never fit due to a social abnormality, physical or not. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is a result of his desire to know higher truth. Yet out of fear for what he achieved, he abandons his creation. The creature longs to be human. Born innocent, he teaches himself by observing them. Yet they ultimately reject him. Mary Shelley was shunned for being her eventual husband’s mistress while he was still married to his first wife. Shunned himself, Frankenstein’s creation becomes a raging and vengeful monster, but only because society made him one. He still has a heart and feels guilt.

The Deviant can infiltrate society and take it down from within, without guilt. Count Dracula moves to London and attacks young well-born women, who symbolize what is valued by Victorian society. After the character Lucy is vampirized, she attacks children, representative of society’s future. The vampire deviates from social norms through murder and raw sexuality (something Bram Stoker could only reference indirectly in his time), and operates secretively. Yet Dracula is from a different world than Victorian London. His is one of superstition, presenting a clash between Christian and non-Christian. Exotic landscapes and languages are seen as beautiful yet terrifying. Though Victorians saw themselves as cosmopolitan, they enjoyed expressing exotic tastes. Stoker merged old and new, drawing from folklore while using a contemporary setting.

Sometimes what is deviant to one culture is not to another. A Horrorscape can be seen as a Deviant story in reverse. After tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice enters a world where everything that defined hers, her whole cultural upbringing, is turned upside down. Everyone’s mad. Alice tells the caterpillar she’s not herself. She cannot conform. She’s transgressive. Perhaps the inhabitants of Wonderland saw Alice as a Deviant trying to tear down their world.

The notion of giving in to one’s “animal” instincts is most clearly depicted in Animagi. They represent a move away from rational towards emotional, thus revealing the beast hidden within, which is violent and aggressive. Dr. Moreau’s creations blur the boundary between man and beast. Another famous example is the werewolf. Often those animals personifying evil are feared, exotic predators. Such instincts can be classified as Christian deadly sins: greed, gluttony, anger, and lust. Yet there is something appealing about giving in; a sense of freedom. H. G. Wells defied convention by advocating “free love” – and was notorious for his affairs.

The schizo is the ultimate human split between good and evil, yet it is often unclear which is the true personality. Though Jekyll’s desire to know the unknown results in a physical transformation (which is not required for schizos – it can exist solely within the mind), even if Hyde is guilty for crimes Jekyll would never commit, Hyde is still a part of him, and slowly takes over. It calls into question identity itself. Identity is in turn reflected in residency and possessions. Jekyll lives in a respectable, cosmopolitan neighborhood; Hyde’s is far less respectable. Once I watched a documentary discussing how Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthplace, Edinburgh, was a city divided between old and new, rich and poor, suggesting that duality may be what inspired his story.

Victorians had a dual perspective regarding women, at a time when many like Shelley’s mother began challenging the status quo and seeking rights in what was still a male-dominated world (a world in which Shelley published anonymously while Charlotte Brontë and her sisters used male pseudonyms). On one side was virginity, marriage and motherhood. On the other were Madwomen: temptresses, mistresses, witches – women who played upon men’s desires, using their femininity for selfish, nefarious purposes. The lunatic Bertha Mason prevents Jane Eyre from marrying Rochester because she’s his wife (though she would later be portrayed as a victim in Wide Sargasso Sea). She dominates Rochester through marriage. Madwomen seek power over men, and greater knowledge (tied back to Eve in Eden). Women were linked symbolically with Nature because of their ability to bear children. Sometimes madwomen were associated with water and drowning, though Bertha herself dies by fire.

People are inexplicably drawn to what terrifies them. These fears and anxieties live on today. There are still outsiders, some by choice and others who have none. Criminals deviate. We all struggle with primal urges and desires. Wherever there are rules, there are always rebels. Perhaps that is why we still enjoy horror fiction. That seminar was the highlight of my first semester. I loved it. Hopefully someday I’ll apply some of these themes to horror stories of my own.