Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's My Motivation?

Right now, the main purpose of my writing this blog post is to avoid working at home.

I read an interesting post over at this blog, where the guy is working on a novel and journaling the process. He mentioned something about not understanding a character's motivations, and I found myself nodding along right away. One of my characters is like that. Unfortunately for me, she's the main character. I'm going to have to a) figure out why she's acting that way and, b) change her a little bit so she's less like a robot maid and more like a human being.

Sometimes I forget that the people I'm closest to are their own people. Rather, I think of them in terms of their relationship to me. I think this probably means that I'm selfish and/or self-centered, but maybe it's not just me. Are you consciously aware of the inner monologues and personal demons of the people who are closest to you? I know that my husband goes to work and school, and thinks about writing a play sometimes, and likes cigars and acting and drinking with friends. But what's really going on in there, moment by moment? What does the voice in his head sound like? What is it telling him to do, and why?

I think that's sort of what happened with Lily, my main character. Because I quickly came to regard her as a close friend, I didn't really question her actions. I trusted that she knew what was best for herself, and let her loose in her plot. But now that I'm coming up on the end of the story, I don't know why she acted the way she did. I want to believe that she had a compelling reason, and not just the one that the plot gave her.

It's tempting to say that sometimes, people just do things for "the usual no-good reason," as Douglas Adams would say. But it's not true. People think they do things for no reason, but they usually just don't know (or are denying knowledge of) their motivations. I used to peel off all the white parts of my fingernails and toenails when I was younger. My mother took me to a psychologist, who basically determined that I was odd but fine and my mother needed therapy for completely unrelated reasons. Was I an overly anxious child? Yeah, sometimes I would lie awake at night and worry that my parents would die before I learned how to cook for myself or braid my own hair. Is that why I peeled my nails? Maybe. Probably not.

I know now that I just hate having nails longer than a few millimeters. If they're too long, I can't play the violin with them, I can't type with them, I can't avail myself of as many sexual opportunities with them, and I always manage to slice into them with a good sharp kitchen knife while cooking with them. They're pretty when manicured, but otherwise, what good are they? My short nails are just as fierce under a couple of coats of black cherry polish, and they don't make me feel so utterly useless. So I cut them. Frequently.

So, here's the trick: in a first person narrative, how do I convey to the reader that there are reasons for a character's behavior that she doesn't even realize? That's kind of a rhetorical question, as I know it'll take some gentle massaging in the rewrite. She'll have to tell you things about herself that she doesn't realize she's telling you. That's always the trick.


the_patches said...

Two things:

You're not self-centered, you're just operating based on what you know best: you.


P.S. I'm interested to see what your answer is. I'm one of those people who's pretty aware of why I do the things I do (too much Dialectal Behavior Therapy). So, seeing how other people work will be quite interesting.

Melanie said...

Lily is a good name.

I think some amount of self-centeredness is human, but I'm not sure exactly where that threshold is.

One thing I love about reading stories is when characters tell me things that they don't realize they're telling me. It makes me feel smart, and maybe a little bit smug. I want my future readers to get that, too.