Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q.#6 -- What role does 'motivation' play in mystery and suspense writing?

A: Motivation causes a person to move toward a goal. Always a good thing in mystery plotting and suspense building. In fiction, if you do not get your character(s) 'properly' and 'fully' motivated, either via cattle prod or bomb, toward a goal, you have no story, no plot development. It falls into the category of a flatline story. Perhaps a mood piece, but there be no seismograph or rollercoaster action at work. You must move the story forward, which means characters have to get out of their seats, off the porch, off the beam and out into the scary place where they must face all the horrid demons from self-doubt to a serial killer on the loose. Character X accuses my heroine of something she did not do, which in turn motivates her to prove otherwise, to prove herself (worthy, brave, courageous, bold), while another character Z, the killer, is telling her she can't do a damn thing about the fact he will kill again. This motivates her to struggle harder, to be smarter next time, to outfox the fox she chases. She may be motivated by a blind faith in her intuition or a certain clue or even her bedrock character trait of being a stubborn scientist or psychic, which can also become her weakness, a weakness or blind spot that can be used against her. A character filled with a desire for raw revenge may get himself killed for it. A psychic who trusts in the wrong vision may get herself killed for the error.

So characters are motivated by circumstances and by other characters (who become obstacles to a goal). Characters are also motivated by settings, storms at sea, an addiction, a past, preconceived and often skewed notions, a surfeit of faith, a lack of faith, a lack of sleep, a fevered brain, or any number of airborne pollens as in Monk. Any 'challenge' can motivate a character or spur him to action. These challenges are called, guess what, motivating factors or forces. Of course a 'force of nature' can really motivate a character to get off Mt. Hood. Nature itself is often the motivator. Sometimes that means human nature.

Motivation is a key to having a story with a forward moving dynamo; a compelling, fast-moving plot or storyline. If a story only exists because of tension\conflict...if a story is indeed a WAR, then the nature of said war itself is the great motivator. Typically, an author determines the nature of the war before he sits down to write. The war may be in the 'What If" question. What if a the captain of the ship you set sail upon happens to be a madman driven by an obsession that could easily get you killed?

As to the author's own motive for writing the story? Money, fame, glory, self-exploration, exploring a question of a paranomal or normal nature, seeking an answer to racial hatred , sheer enjoyment or passion in the act of creation...Vengeance' and\or 'validation' --whatever turns your crank, this is the author's motivating force. For love or money...for love and money? Go for it. Just do it. Motive and motivation is all about doing. Start your story with your character's hands doing something and you are well on your way already, in the midst of action and motive. Motive is everything, especially in mystery and suspense fiction just as surely as in True Crime.

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