Motive: Adding Character Depth

Resolutions blog seriesWelcome to the final writing tip post in this January series. If you made a New Year’s goal to write a book, I hope you’re still going strong. So far I’ve discussed writing skeleton drafts and plotting, and today I’m going to talk about adding character depth.

Watch any crime show and one of the main things cops look for in solving a crime is motive. Motivation is the root of all our actions. Every decision we make in life is based on one emotion or another: love, fear, ambition, insecurity, anger, etc. What drives your characters?

I’m guessing many people know the answer to that question when it comes to their main character, but what about secondary characters? What about the antagonist or bad guy? Oh, well my evil dude wants to plunge the world into eternal darkness. Okay, but why? Desires and goals aren’t the same as motive. Motive is what lies behind a character’s goals and actions.

Take Loki from the movie Thor. He wanted to destroy the Frost Giants and rule Asgard. Why? Because he’s an evil psychopath? Well, yeah, but this wasn’t some random whim. He was neither born this way nor did he wake up one morning and think it’d be fun to wreak havoc on two worlds. No, Loki’s motivations were rooted in insecurity and a desperate need for approval from his father, Odin. Once on this homicidal path, it was easy for Loki to do other terrible things in The Avengers.

How about secondary characters? What driving motivation is behind their lives? Is it ambition in their career? A desire to be loved? A sense of entitlement? Answering this one question for each of the players in your book will give them an added layer of depth that will come through in the story, even if you never explicitly go into detail about their backstory. (Remember, just because you know all the angles, doesn’t mean you tell the reader.)

Now, how do you apply this in your writing? You already know from my previous posts that I’m big on plotting and organization. Before you get too far into a story, try writing out a summary of each character’s motivations and how it impacts their actions in the story. I find this crucially helpful with the antagonist. I put myself in his (or her) head and map out his actions behind the scenes, and his motives for doing them. Knowing a bad guy’s motives also helps you know how he or she will respond when your protagonist throws a wrench in his evil machinations.

How about you? Do you think of motive when it comes to all your characters?

I hope you found this series of writing tips useful. Happy writing!


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Write Like an Onion

No, I do not mean your writing should smell bad.  Rather, writing a book is like growing an onion–it happens layer by layer.  One doesn’t typically bust out a perfect best-seller in the first draft.  (And if you do, well then kudos, but most of us aren’t gods.)

Writers are told the most important thing in writing is to just get something on paper (or Word, since most of us are computer trained by now).  A messed up paragraph is easier to fix than a blank page.  I, for one, enjoy watching my novel transform from superficial first draft to detailed final product.  There are so many aspects that make up a good book–plot, description, characterization, emotional investment, grammar.  (It’s amazing how much that last one comes up in book reviews.)

I don’t know about most of you, but I’m guessing that like me, you can’t keep all those aspects at the forefront of your brain at the same time.  Maybe you’ve got one down really well, but it takes a few rounds to nail another.  That’s okay because it’s all part of the process of writing/growing a novel.

Everyone’s process is different too.  My first drafts are all about plot and pacing.  That comes easiest to me.  Then I have to go back and work on adding subtle characterization to make my characters really pop.  Grammar is not an issue, but there are some technical aspects that I need to focus on one at a time, like passive voice (“was”) clusters.  In the revision process, I go over each chapter again and again, each time with a different focus, adding another layer.

When it’s over, I’m exhausted.  But seeing how my novel changed and grew makes all that work worthwhile.

What’s your growing process like?  Do you know which layers you tend to apply first?  Last?  Do you struggle with this concept, pushing yourself to write down the first words perfectly? 

Take a look at this video of flowers.  Notice how the first petals push out, and then later how more petals emerge and fill in the center.  Like a fully bloomed flower, a great novel is full of rich complexities–and they didn’t come together all at once!


Phoenix Feather is on SALE now on Amazon for $.99!  A sweet romance with a slight supernatural flair.