Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Making Character Motivation Believable

Have you ever read a story where the characters just aren’t believable? Ever wonder why? I believe it has to do with character motivation. Think about those unbelievable stories and nine times out of ten the characters are not acting as real people would in the same situation. Part of the problem is the ground work. A clear path has not been built for the characters to act as they do. In other words there’s no clear motivation. Let’s look at a scene with flawed motivation…

“No! Not now!” Jane’s tired eyes glared down on the illuminated gas gauge. Empty. Her fingers gripped hard on the steering wheel. She’d been so desperate to get away from her husband, Gary, that she hadn’t checked before speeding away from her house. And to make matters worse, she’d been driving aimlessly for over an hour and didn’t know where she was.

Gazing out the front window of her husband’s Lexus into the dark night, she wondered if he’d awakened from his drunken stupor and was driving her clunker, looking for her. He said he’d kill her if she ever left him. There was no doubt in her mind that he had meant it. Frantic she dug her cell phone from her clutch purse. She punched in numbers and then realized the battery was dead. Would nothing go right on this cursed night?


Gary’s drunken rage flashed before her eyes. Her shaky hand went to her cheek and eye. She winced and glanced in the rearview mirror. The meager light from the dash revealed that the skin was red and puffy. If Gary caught up with her, he'd finish the job he'd started. She had to keep moving and get as far away as she could. But, where could she go? Her father’s place in Texas. Two states away, but that might be far enough. Except first she had to buy some gas.

Grabbing her purse, she opened the door and slid from the plush leather seats into the chilly night. She stumbled a couple of times on the cursed stiletto heels Gary had demanded she wear to the dinner party, the party where he’d drank too much, the party where he’d seen her talking with a stranger. The man merely wanted to know where the bathroom was. Jane didn’t even know him, but Gary didn’t believe her. He flew into a tirade as soon as they’d returned home, calling her a whore.

Tempted to take off the stupid shoes and chance walking barefoot, she raised her foot to do just that at the same time she saw a light from a farmhouse a little ways away. She could stand the shoes a bit longer.

Quickening her step the best she could, she hurried to the small house. She quickly climbed the steps and rang the bell. The wooden door opened and before her stood the most gorgeous man she’s ever seen. Her eyes trailed up his muscular body to his broad shoulders. A caring expression framed his chiseled face. She couldn’t help the instant attraction that stirred her insides.

What??? Rewind. Really, an instant attraction. Come on. I can understand fleeing violence and not checking the gas gauge. I can even understand the battery on the cell phone going dead, and being forced to walk in uncomfortable shoes, but where I really get lost is when she sees a handsome man and she’s immediately attracted. No way!

For one thing…she’s running away from an abusive husband. Jane is not thinking of anything but safety. She may notice the man is good-looking, but even that might repulse her and remind her of her abusive husband. To plug in an attraction here is not logical nor does it show believable motivation. So if you’re writing a romantic suspense novel, how do you develop the romance without the cliché and stereotypical love at first sight scenario? Let’s go back to the door opening scene.

…The heavy oak door opened and before her stood a five-year-old girl. Her pigtails were askew on her head. Fly-away hair feathered her face. Big, brown “precious moment” eyes stared up at Jane.

“Hi. Is your mommy home?” Jane glanced in back of the child, hopeful to see a woman.
The child shook her head and started to close the door. Desperate Jane stopped it from shutting by wedging her foot between the door and the door jamb. Hiding the pain from smashed toes and cursing the shoes under her breath, Jane finally said as calmly as she could, “Go get your mommy, honey.”

“Can’t.” The child stepped back.

“Sweetie, I need to call a service station. I ran out of gas and need to use your phone?”

The little girl shakes her head. “Daddy said I'm not supposed to let strangers in.”

“You should always do as your daddy said. You can leave the door open while I'm inside, and I promise I won’t stay long.” Jane cupped her hand to the child’s cheek and eased her way into the house. She spied a phone down the hallway. About to skirt around the child, she stopped short when a man stepped in front of her from out of nowhere.

“Can I help you?” A deep, gravelly voice came from the tall, lanky man blocking her path.

Fear swallowed Jane. Bile rose in her throat. She didn’t wait for him to draw nearer, but immediately turned about and hurried off. Her stiletto heels tapping her retreat. Heavy foot-falls gave chase. At any moment the man could reach out and grab her.

“Hey, lady…ya broke down or something?”

Panicked Jane glanced in back of her. Her mind only registered a red baseball cap on top of his head before she turned back desperate to escape and stay upright while running in those blamed shoes. “Sorry, wrong house, " she spat out. "My mistake.” Why was she so scared of a complete stranger? That guy was not her husband. Good grief, he’s probably that little girl’s father. Still Jane could not bear to be in the presence of another man right now…maybe never.

Okay now we have the beginning of a more believable story. Can you see why? Jane is acting more along the lines of an abused wife. We have a more believable path. It is logical that a woman desperate to find safety and to put miles between herself and an abusive husband would beg a little girl to let her use the telephone. It is also logical that as soon as a man comes between Jane and her goal of calling for help that she would bolt.

The writer needs to keep building the path for the hero and heroine to once again meet because, of course, the little girl's father has to be the would-be hero. A path for their relationship to grow logically and with sound motivation needs to be built. You've read the "meet." What is needed now is the rest of their story. Throw in some nail-biting fear with Gary coming after her. Add a good dose of courage that Jane never knew she possessed. Then see how hero will not necessarily save her, but will be there for her when the chips are down. Go ahead. Figure out a way for the hero and herione to meet once again. Then find a way to keep them logically together. Through sound motivation when they have that moment of attraction for one another the scene will be far more memberable...and logical.

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