To write about people with any semblance of realism one must know people. Not just the surface clutter; everyone wears masks, and what rests on the surface seldom has much to do with the real person inside. It’s the inner being in all of us that drives our thoughts and motivates our actions.
Some will disagree, saying that our image–the face we project to other people–drives us to think (acceptable social mores) and act (determine what we will and will not do). But the image itself doesn’t drive us. Our concern (usually fear) about what others will think of us makes our image important to us. We’ve decided their opinions matter to us and we want to influence that opinion.
We want some people to adore us. We want some people to fear us. Some to dare or challenge us. And, yes, even some to hate us. We direct our actions to effect the result we want. But it is why we want that opinion to be what we want it to be–good or bad–that is the heart of motivation.
It isn’t that we want an image. It’s why we want a specific image. It isn’t that we have a goal. It’s why we choose that specific goal to be our goal. What it means to us.
Aristotle said that all human actions have one of seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire. Or a combination of several of them. I think he should have explicitly included love and greed. They fit, of course, in several of his seven, but in observing people closely for most of my life, I’ve found that nothing motivates people to act as often or as intensely, as love or greed.
For example, a parent who loves their child will do anything for them. A loving grandparent will do even more. Not that grandparents love more than parents, but they’ve lived more and their priorities have shifted from saving the world to cherishing their families. This particular situation was depicted well in an episode of WEST WING. A senator filibustered a Bill on the House floor, and only after he’d been at it for a very long time did anyone realize his grandchild had a stake in that Bill. The President rightly judged that the Senator would die holding the floor for that grandchild. He was motivated by love.
Actions motivated by love–protagonists or antagonists–haVE made many a story compelling. And many a life.
So has greed. It never fails to amaze me how seriously out of whack people get about even just the opportunity to gain “stuff.” Money is an obvious example. Wanting more of it has driven people to work themselves to death and to kill people–even people they purportedly love.
Yet it isn’t only money that can make people forget who they are, forget the lessons they’ve spent a lifetime learning, and act nuts. Greed has many faces, and it has driven sane people to plot and contrive, to lie and steal and conspire and to do things they would swear on all that is holy they hate seeing others do and would never consider doing themselves.
There isn’t any one set thing that motivates people. Different people consider different things important. Often those things are set in our hearts and minds as important when we are children. We adopt what our parents and/or those closest to us consider important. Later, we modify, adding the opinions of our friends’ and others we value, and what they consider important. Then as adults, we evaluate, shed some opinions we no longer consider valid to us, though we might still consider these things valid to others, and determine what is to be of value to us.
A single event can be a trigger. Say, a boy 13 loves football but is too small to play on his high school team. Growing becomes critically important to the boy, and while he can’t control that, he can begin eating specific foods to promote growth, working out with weights, exercising to the point of exhaustion to build muscle mass. He’s motivated to act by his desire to play football.
How far will that desire drive him? It could stay healthy, or he could turn to steroids or growth enhancement drugs. How far he goes can only be determined by him. And all of who he is–the sum of all his experience–will be key in his decision. He will choose to stay constructive or become destructive. Outside influences will impact that decision (we’re human and they always do) by making him more or less determined to play ball.
If his friends tease and ridicule him because he can’t play, he’ll either choose to be more determined and take actions to aid in the goal, or his esteem will suffer and he’ll undergo changes that reflect it. Either way, he doesn’t remain unchanged.
Our history plays a large part in motivating us, but so does our self perception of the person we are, the one we want to be, and the specific situation. The more something matters to us, the more it can change us for the better or the worse.
Often we act and we don’t really know why we do it. It’s almost instinctive. On occasion, we don’t want to look any closer to see why, but we should, and if we’re writing, our characters must.
Some ideas of good and bad and what’s admirable and shameful are forged in us through painful experiences. We lived through them once. We don’t relish living through them again. Not even if that reliving is only in our minds. But it’s only in examining ourselves, and why we do what we do in the way we do it, that we gain the ability to truly understand motivations in ourselves. That’s paramount to understanding them in others, and that includes in the characters we write about.
I’m thinking, as I write this, about a scene from PRETTY WOMAN. Vivian is in the bath, hiding something behind her back. Edward thinks it’s drugs but it’s dental floss. He’s surprised, and admits that people seldom surprise him. Vivian comes back with a comment that people often shock the hell out of her.
If you look at the development of these two characters, you see that both reacted exactly as you would expect. Edward has trust issues and has made it his business to know what to expect from others. Vivian is a bum magnet. Their responses fit because they’re natural to them: the goal in creating realistic characters.
In life, it’s a little more challenging to pinpoint what will motivate others. Part of the reason is that the results have a real-life impact. Another part is that we never see into the soul of others. We see what they choose to reveal. We seldom know the thousand little things that have shaped them into the person they’ve become, and we only know what drives them if they make it apparent to us.
While we get to know some people well, at best we only know shades of them. We see them when they’re raw and vulnerable, when they’re triumphant, riding high on success, and in a dozen stages in between. But for all we see, there are thousands of shades we don’t see. Some they don’t even see.
And that might be the most important lesson in motivation. There are always shades unseen. Always things that can be revealed to others, and to one’s self, during the course of a relationship, during the course of a novel. Reflections of the human in the human being.
Trust is earned, one book at a time.”
–Vicki Hinze https://vickihinze.com
Note: I edit books and professional correspondence. But I do NOT edit email or this blog. This is chat time for me, so if the grammar is goofed or a word’s spelled wrong, please just breeze on past it. I’d appreciate it–and salute you with my coffee cup. 🙂
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Copyright 2005. Vicki Hinze
Vicki Hinze is a multi-published author, who has a free library of her articles on writing–the craft, business and life–at https://www.vickihinze.com.