And you have an answer, a clear, defensible answer, consistent with the character’s past behaviour, right? Of course you do, because it’s unlikely the rest of the scenario would have happened if you didn’t. Not only would your characters have lacked substance; the plot would be unbelievable: why did he or she do that?
Of course, the same applies to a novel. There may not be actors around to ask the question, but your editors and readers will do so on their behalf. Best you get to it before they do.
When I write, I make a practice of interrogating all of my characters about their motivation – for everything they do and say. It’s the most useful technique I have for developing interesting and believable characters, in particular the minor players. When I studied screenwriting, we were encouraged to fill in questionnaires for our characters right down to favourite food, football team and star sign. I think there are better ways to spend our time. If we’re going to follow the ‘show not tell’ principle, then it’s all about what our characters say and do – and, in particular, the decisions they make. We need to make those decisions plausible, or, better still, inevitable, though only predictable in hindsight!
For minor characters, it’s usually a matter of consistency, which often translates into proper setting up. What is their most important action or decision? What should they do in advance to make this ‘in character’?
In The Rosie Project, the Dean is a minor character, who at a critical point decides to fire our hero, Don, for breaking a rule. Not every Dean would do that and we don’t want our readers to be left thinking surely not, it’s an overreaction. I follow the ‘rule of three’: Don has two previous encounters with the Dean that make it clear she wants to be rid of him. So when we come to the third, much as we might sympathise with Don, we should feel, if I was the Dean, I’d do the same.
For the major characters, I go a bit further, especially when it comes to the most critical, game-changing decisions. There are a few in every story, and it’s essential that, no matter how surprising they are, they be believable. These are the moments that tell us the most about our heroes and they need to be as thought-through as possible.
In my upcoming novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, Adam has to decide whether to leave his partner to pursue an old flame. It’s the crux of the book – and of his character. In the book I’m currently writing with my partner, Anne Buist, Left Right, both characters decide to walk the Camino de Santiago. If we don’t believe their motivations for doing so, at both the surface and deep levels, we will not be interested in their journeys. In The Rosie Project, Don Tillman decides to help a fellow researcher find her father through surreptitious DNA testing. Why?
I ask the question at three levels.
First: what would our character say to a friend – or a reader? It’s the literal, straightforward, surface answer.
Second: what would they tell a (hypothetical) therapist – someone they trust totally – after reflecting on their decision? It’s my way of digging deeper; getting as close as possible to the character’s self-knowledge.
Third: What would the therapist (assumed to be an insightful practitioner who has known our character for a long time) tell us? Here we’re getting the view of someone detached – another truth.
Let’s try it on a secondary character in The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. Don’s colleague, Gene, a smooth philanderer, becomes his closest friend and mentor in the game of love. Don is a geek, nothing like Gene. What is Gene’s motivation for helping Don?
Gene would tell us that he’s being a decent guy: sharing his hard-won knowledge of seduction with the novice. That’s plausible, but not enough.
He might tell his therapist – in complete confidence of course – that he himself was once socially awkward, and can relate to Don’s plight.
And what would his therapist say? That Gene is a narcissist who isn’t fooling anyone – except Don. And he’s attracted to Don because he’s the only one who takes him seriously. Or perhaps that he wants to live a better life through Don. Or both.
If you’ve read The Rosie Project, you may not agree with these answers. Fair enough: I don’t claim a mortgage on truth, particularly at the deeper levels, which is why I don’t look for a ‘God’s eye’ view. It’s always filtered through human perceptions. But it gives me – and hopefully my readers – a picture of Gene far more nuanced than I would get by assigning a star sign and favourite football team.
I counsel you to do this for all your characters, not necessarily at the outset, but as the story develops and you review the decisions they take. And hopefully, one day, the actor of your choice won’t need to ask ‘what’s my motivation’. It will be there on the page.