Motivation: Are My Characters Internally Consistent?

Motivation. Why does a character, or a real-live person, do what they do? How are their actions consistent with their core beliefs even when those acts might seem to be at odds with their public persona?

Conflict may be the beating heart of your story, but motivation is the life-blood that allows readers to invest themselves in your characters. Even if your character doesn’t know why he/she acts the way he/she does, your reader should understand enough to intuitively feel the rightness of this character choosing that particular path.

I’ve been watching the HBO series “Carnivale” on DVD and I’ve marveled at how the writers have pulled me into a world so at odds with my own. I can’t say I understand the characters, but I definitely feel for them. I care about what happens to them. And while I may not be able to define their motivations, I intuitively know that their choices are true to whom they believe themselves to be.

Stumpy is a case in point. I don’t understand a man who can act as pimp to his wife and daughters, but neither do I question his genuine love for his girls. The family dynamic in that grouping is fascinating to watch. It is foreign to my experience, but it rings true for them because each character acts in an internally consistent manner.

Internally consistent. Yep, that’s the key. I have to know my characters well enough to know that the action they have chosen at any given moment is internally consistent. That the seemingly self-assured, successful hero will balk when asked to pick up the phone and call the heroine because while the world believes him to be invulnerable, he knows himself to be insecure and ill-at-ease. What he may not realize is that he is afraid of people on a very deep level, that he was abused as a child and his subconscious has buried the evidence to protect his conscious self-image. But the truth remains and it rears its head in unexpected ways at inconvenient moments.

As the author, it’s my business to know all my character’s secrets, even the ones he hides from himself…and I must be able to show my readers his vulnerability by allowing them a glimpse beneath his perfectly polished public façade.

And people think writing is easy…

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