When it comes to discovering and writing about your character’s motivation, there are a dozen different methods. We can get there by any number of roads—most of which originate in the planning stage. But what if the key to unlocking this part of the character’s inner landscape could be found in revision? That process might look something like this…
First, the rough draft.
We create a protagonist with intensely conflicting needs. Those needs force this protagonist to behave and speak in specific ways. And these ways create situations that, once they’re in them, they desperately want out of, situations they can’t get out of without making things immeasurably worse.
We put this protagonist into a room or garden or culvert or on a street or island or mountain or under a thundercloud or tent or blanket with some other characters, who also have their own needs.
We thrown in a stick of dynamite and leap out of the way.
And it’s brilliant.
We keep this up for a good, long time, until this protagonist’s conflicting needs collide in a life-changing shower of fireworks. Then we force them to choose.
And eventually, footsore and weary-worn but with a gleam of well-earned satisfaction in our eyes, we fetch up here alongside everyone else in Revisionland. We’re a bit surprised to be feeling quite so footsore and weary-worn. But now we’ve taken a satisfying rest, and we’re ready to get back into our story, to begin the second phase: revision.
So the first thing we do is pull out a notebook and ask ourselves, “How well do I know this protagonist?”
What is our protagonist’s primary overwhelming need? I know we wrote this down back in the beginning (you didn’t?), but we’ll pretend that the Climax is a short story and none of the rest exists.
What’s the fire in this strange new protagonist’s belly, the death-defying drive that makes them forge straight into this Climax and fight there tooth-&-nail for everything they love and believe in?
We’ll write the answer at the top of a fresh page. We’ll draw a box around it. Doodle in three-dimensional sides for the box. Add shadows, dents, cracks, travel stickers. Add a cat with one of those inscrutable cat expressions. That’s the witness.
Got it? Good.
Now, what deep inside this protagonist is pitted against them in that Climax? What’s the equal-but-opposite fire in their belly that’s fighting back?
We’ll write it down below the box we just drew. Decorate it with its own little box, its own light and shadows, dents and cracks, evidence of a long and painfully difficult road. If the first cat is looking too directly at the first box, we’ll give this one a cat of its own. Otherwise, one cat will suffice.
Got it? Good.
We’ll doodle some lightning bolts between the two boxes.
Now we’ll ask ourselves, “Exactly how could these two needs have gotten this protagonist into this dreadful calamity?”
We’ll take copious notes on this, fleshing it out as fully as possible. We won’t re-tell the story. We’ll forget we ever even knew the story. We’re diving beneath the wave, re-envisioning the story from a completely different perspective. This is essential in order to know that the story we’ve told is, in fact, the story we’ve meant to tell.
We’ll ask ourselves, “What do you suppose happened here?” Then we’ll ask ourselves, “And how could these needs have led somewhere else?“ We’ll write about that for awhile.
We’ll draw circles and brackets, arrows and asterisks, little comments about things we forgot to mention. We’ll fill up pages. Keep our hands moving. We’ll always be wondering, “What do those two needs imply about this protagonist? How could this character have responded to their problems differently?” We’ll write sideways, at an angle, in loops, or upside-down. Nobody’s ever going to see this stuff.
We’ll work backward through the story from Climax through Development, uncovering the hidden aspects of our protagonist’s internal conflict and recording them in great, whacking, glorious detail.
Eventually we’ll arrive at the Hook and write long and copiously about that. And finally—sprawling all over the pages of a full notebook or more—there will be a whole multitude of deep, intricate roots to this story.
Take a long breath and admire it. You had no idea your story contained such depth, did you?
Then we’ll go through it all slowly and thoughtfully, doodling circles or boxes or pyramids or stars around only those most special, magical roots with the freshest, most amazing potential.
All we care about right now is that they’re different, surprising, magical. We’re not outlining something we’ve already outlined before. We’re searching for hidden potentialities that vibrate with the greatest possible tension and significance. We’ll know them. They’ll make our fingertips tingle.
Now we’ll take out another fresh sheet of paper (you didn’t know revision took so much fresh paper, did you?) and draw a sweeping curve and letter in extremely small letters each of those special, magical roots in chronological order.
Our protagonist’s real character arc.
Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.
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OH MY GOSH
I just figured out a protagonist that’s been haunting me for three years! I could never get his story right until now. Thank you so much for writing this!!
BECCA PUGLISI says
YAY! Victoria is awesome, isn’t she? I love this roundabout way of figuring out the motivation. So glad it worked for you!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Not only is this a good challenge question route for plotters, it’s also especially helpful for Pantsers, who likely didn’t know the character’s motivation at the planning stage. Both Planners and Plotters need a roadmap at some point if they want to deliver a polished, well-constructed story! Thanks, Victoria!
victoria Mixon says
You’re welcome, Angela!
You’re absolutely right. Pantsers launch into writing as though off a high-dive. All that meandering around looking at this new fictional world, eavesdropping on strange new characters, running at their heels as they ricochet off their problems. I’ve written lots of novels this way. It’s so FUN!
But we don’t know our characters when we meet them, so we don’t know what secretly matters to them or where they’re going with it. Not until we reach the end of our first draft can we dive down back through it all to find out where we’ve recorded thrilling real life, and where we’ve maybe bogged down in mistakes, and how to truly discover this real character we’ve grown to love. So we dive.
And when we Plot, we can get so busy staying on track with the narrative that we lose sight of the complexity of human nature. We get so much done in such an efficient manner–writing takes so much less agonizing when we know what we’re doing. We feel so SKILLED!
So when we’ve finished our first draft, we dive back down beneath the wave of the plot, to find out where things went right, where things maybe went wrong, what we can do about it now. We dive.
It’s this diving that makes revision such rich and rewarding work.