Horror Writing

Horror Writing: Character motivations and why they are so important

This week I went to the theatre again, this is one of my favourite ways to pass an evening. I was very much looking forward to this show, however, by the time the curtain fell at the end I was disappointed. I want to use today’s blog to talk about why.

Full disclosure I’m not naming the show at any point, I like to keep this a positive kind of place and this blog is not an effort to bash anyone. This will (hopefully) be a constructive look at why certain stories, regardless of the medium or genre, just don’t work.

We will be talking about a crucial part of all stories, and how if the writer gets this wrong it kills the story dead. It disengages the audience and destroys any narrative they have built. Fortunately, it’s easy not to screw up (which is probably why it’s so frustrating when it does get messed up).

I am talking about character motivation, and more to the point consistency with character motivation.

What is character motivation?

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Character motivation is pretty much what the name says. It is the character’s motivation, why are they doing what they are doing, it is what has caused them to behave in the way they are currently behaving, it is what has spurred them into action. Their driving force, their reason for being etc.

As an example, A dragon, has attacked a castle and captured the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up and slays the dragon.

The dragons motivation is to find a worthy foe, this drove him to attack the castle and capture the princess. The king’s motivation is the recovery of his castle and his daughter. Because of this motivation, he made the proclamation. The knight’s motivation was the prize of the princesses’ hand and the future right to rule the kingdom, so he fights the dragon.

Motivation isn’t a difficult concept to understand but it is crucial. It needs to be clear to the audience why the characters are acting the way they are. It is not necessary for the motivation to be shown up front but it must be established at some point.

It also needs to be consistent (usually, but I’ll get to that).

What has this got to do with why I was mad at the theatre?

I was mad at the theatre because the show I was watching had inconsistent character motivations.

This is perhaps one of the most frustrating writing faux pas’ in existence, in my humble opinion.

Why is it so important to be consistent with character motivations?

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Every story is made up of three parts,

  1. The Setup.
  2. The Confrontation.
  3. The Resolution.

For a story to work well and be enjoyed by the audience it needs to have all three parts and they need to consistently link together and work with each other. This basic three-act structure is driven by characters, and motivations are what drives the characters. So, character motivation is critical to a story, throughout its entirety.

So, imagine if in the first two parts of the above structure the character is driven by their burning need to achieve goal A, then at the start of the third part, they forget this. Suddenly, and with no build-up, no warning and no character development your character suddenly decides their main motivation isn’t what interests them anymore, and they just stop.

Using the same example from earlier, A dragon attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up, makes a big speech about how he will save the princess, he wants to marry her but instead of fighting the dragon he eats a sandwich.

See how unsatisfying that is!

Now, this is different from characters who have hidden their true motivations, or characters whose motivations change through the story. There’s nothing wrong with either of these as long as it is shown clearly.

Sticking with the example from earlier, A dragon attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up, makes a big speech about how he will save the princess, he then sees the dragon, falls madly in love with said dragon and refuses to fight.

Using the same example from earlier, A dragon attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up, makes a big speech about how he will save the princess, the king invites him to dinner before the big fight and the knight kills the king, taking the kingdom that way.

These both have inconsistent motivations on the part of the knight, but they are organic to the story and his character, they are also explained through the story. So the audience doesn’t feel cheated.

In the show, I watched the main character was strongly driven by their clear motivation throughout the first half, after the intermission that drive was the same, to the point where they did some morally questionable things.

Then suddenly, with no explanation, they just lost interest in achieving their goal and wanted something else at the last second (Literally in the last five minutes of the show). Their sudden change of heart wasn’t addressed in anyway. I honestly thought for a moment that I’d fallen asleep and missed a bit of the show. It felt like the writer had written two stories and mixed them up. The ending to Story A somehow ended up in Story B.

I discussed the show with friends after it had finished and the only thing we could come up with is that the writer had tried (and failed) to put a twist ending in place. But there was no foreshadowing, the twist wasn’t organic to the plot, it didn’t fit with everything we’d been shown about the character in question. It felt tacked on and false.

Satisfying your audience

Part of the reason we take such joy in stories is because of how they make us feel, and the key feeling that we need at the end of a story is satisfaction. We need an ending that is in keeping with the story, it doesn’t need to be a happy ending, your main character doesn’t always need to have achieved everything they set out to achieve, all bad guys do not need to be defeated but the ending needs to be satisfying.

Character motivation is a key element of reaching that satisfying ending. Having your characters be consistent with their motivations or have good reasons for changing them will help you craft a satisfying ending for your audience. Focus on the motivations and writing a strong ending will be far easier.

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