Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing Motive

Hi Everyone, Lynette here to say Happy Wednesday once again. And it’s March, too. HOW did that happen? Is time passing as fast for you as it is for me? Goodness, Christmas will be here before we know it. LOL.

Well, I have a real treat for you today. Since I’ve been working like crazy, I asked a friend if she’d like to step in and offer some excellent writing advice. Advice that I’ve taken note of and plan to incorporate into my own writing. Read on, friends, I think you’ll like what Kristen has to say. So let me introduce her.

Kristin Billerbeck is a CBA bestselling novelist of over 40 books, Her work has been featured in The New York Times, World Magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on "The Today Show." Her love of romance and wit began with an awkward childhood crush on Mr. Darcy, which continues to this day.  She makes her home in Silicon Valley.

Writing Motive
by Kristin Billerbeck @KristinBeck

I’ve heard it said that Tolstoy wanted to write a novel about a bad wife and ended up falling in love with her. That novel became Anna Karenina. Originally, the doomed heroine was meant to be a villain to the author and make us crave a moral society. Readers were meant to see her poor husband as a victim to her extramarital affair and innocent in the unraveling of their lives. But a strange thing happened as Tolstoy wrote Anna…she burst into life and became real to him. Then, it wasn’t quite so simple as making husband Karenin all good. No more than it was simple to make Anna all bad. After all, she needed a reason for her sins. Once Tolstoy found them, his novel and his characters became unforgettable.

There’s a huge lesson here for authors. When readers understand why characters act in a certain way, they identify with them, even if they’d never take the same steps — and find these actions repulsive. Tolstoy shows us Anna’s empty life. Her loneliness, her unspeakable desire for the mysterious and magnetic Vronsky. We watch her fall under Vronsky’s spell until we see she is powerless to fight the passion in favor of rational thought.   

Once readers understand why her background would lead a seemingly good woman; a proper and elegant wife into an immoral relationship  though it threatens her very existence, we understand. We empathize and must follow her to find out what happens.   

Dostoevsky offers us this same type of motive, by taking readers into the mind of murderer Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” He has been poor his whole life. The old, wealthy pawnbroker doesn’t have long to live. Of what value is her life when that money could do so much for Raskolnikov? He reasons that he can make up for the sin of her murder with good deeds later. He can’t, of course, and we understand this as readers, but we also find ourselves empathizing with his poverty and how it stands in the way of his dreams.  

When we understand why someone makes awful, life altering decisions, we have a a book we cannot put down. In essence, we care. Motive takes characters from stick figures and deepens them into fully-formed human beings. Think about the people you know. No one is fully bad or fully good  They have flaws, quirks and drives that while we may not understand, we can appreciate.  

If you’re having trouble finding the motive in one of your characters, ask why they would act the way they did. Anna Karenina fell under the spell of a magical, mysterious stranger and didn’t want to let such passionate feelings go. Neither Anna nor Raskolnikov are correct in their thinking, but as readers, we know why they did it and so we keep reading.

Luckily, we are not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Most likely, we don’t have to make a reader understand the mind of an adulteress or a murderer. Maybe we only need to explain why someone loves her fiancĂ©’s brother instead of her fiancĂ©. Or we need to explain why an 8-year old boy, dressed in his Sunday best, must jump into a swampy lake. The answer is in motive and it’s one of the biggest gifts you can give your readers. Don’t make them ask why the boy jumped.  Make them see he had no other choice but to jump.

If you’re having trouble thinking of why someone would act a certain way, think about someone you love. Everyone has something that defines their personality for the most part. Maybe your child is so organized that their homework is always done without asking. That child’s room is spotless. They are your responsible child. What if you came home one day and found their room a mess and their teacher called and said they hadn’t been in class that day? You’d start asking questions immediately.

Why not do that with your characters? Find their motive for every action in a scene. When a character’s motives make sense to you, it will build a bond of trust with your readers.

Lynette here: I love this!! Sometimes when I’m writing and I can’t figure out how my characters would respond to a certain situation, I realize it’s because I don’t know that particular character well enough. I don’t know the motivation or the goals. Now understand, I have my own style of getting to know my characters – I use a character sketch. I have an excel document where I list all of my characters across the top of the page then down below, put pertinent information about those characters. When I learn something new about a character, I add that to the description. And when I add a new character in the story, I simply add that character to the chart. It’s a great way to keep up with characters and keep their physical traits straight because I’m notorious for saying a character has green eyes then by the end of the book, they’re blue. Just ask my editors…no don’t.

Ahem…moving on…

What is it you like about the characters you read about? What is one of the most memorable characters in a book you’ve read, one that won’t leave you alone?

Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Thank you SO MUCH, Kristen, for popping in and joining us today. I know others look forward to taking your advice and putting it to good use. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Kristen and perhaps reading some of her books (which I highly recommend!) you can find her at, Twitter:KristinBeck or read more on her Blog:
Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on characterization. Have a fabulous Wednesday. 

Finding a character's motive can move your book from good to great - by @Kristenbeck via @LynetteEason (Click to Tweet)

#Writing Motive, great tips from bestselling author Kristen Billerbeck, @KristenBeck via @LynetteEason (Click to Tweet)


  1. I have to know what makes them the way they are before I start to write, at least the foundation of it. I find that in the Lie the character believes about themselves. That's embedded by the time they are 5 years old (before they can reason it away) and colors their whole outlook and motivation. As they get older, other events compound that Lie, making it stronger. It adds depth to the character arc, too.

  2. FYI: Her name is Kristin not Kristen, which makes a difference on Twitter. For a moment I felt weirdly popular. Sincerely, @kristenbeck :-)