Analyzing Character Motivations like a Non-fiction Writer

January 26, 2012

After ten years of writing and editing non-fiction, I know it’s not enough for a writer to state a claim or pick a side and then write the words. Unless it’s an essay or opinion piece, outside sources are required to support the writer’s claims. Finished copy is expected to be turned in with a complete source sheet, detailing the expert and anecdotal sources spoken to and their contact information. In some cases, source sheets list medical studies, times and dates of lectures, and or details about transcripts. All of these things have one goal: to support the writer’s claim(s).

In the years I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve encountered people who think I left the non-fiction world because fiction is “easier.” The writer has “free reign.” After all, the story is made up, they say. But just because a story is fiction doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be believable.

When a fictional character acts or reacts, writer’s need to support that claim. Hard Ass Alpha Male can’t cry in Chapter Ten without some substantial “support” for his action (the claim). Remember, just because the writer says it’s so, doesn’t mean it is.

Think: What sources back up this claim? The best source is always a primary source, a person with direct knowledge of the subject matter.

In this case, the subject matter is Hard Ass Alpha Male’s behavior. Nobody knows this guy better than this guy knows himself. For our purposes, we’re going to call Hard Ass Alpha Male the expert primary source. When Hard Ass cries in Chapter Ten, if it’s a legitimate claim, then there are other actions (small though they may be), thoughts and feelings in earlier chapters that support this behavior.

  • Maybe he felt a lump in his throat in Chapter Four, showing he’s capable of emotion.
  • Maybe he thinks about the time he cried in high school after losing out on the class presidency, showing there’s a precedent for this sort of behavior.
  • Maybe a bunch of little misfortunes in chapters one through eight have him fighting back tears throughout Chapter Nine, anticipating his breaking point.

If you can detail moments like these, then you’re on the right track. But if Hard Ass rips through chapters one through nine with nary a smile or twinge in his heart, if he stomps around saying emotion other than anger shows weakness without so much as a fleeting thought to the contrary, you could have a problem with believability when that first tear falls.

To make a claim even stronger, take a look at the secondary sources. What do the other characters tell the reader about Hard Ass Alpha Male?

  • Maybe Happy Healthy Heroine notices early on that when he’s particularly harsh to her, his brow twitches, and it looks uncomfortable, and she surmises the action to mean he’s uncomfortable with treating her that way, that he’s capable of feeling, but for some reason he won’t set the emotion free.
  • Maybe Flashy Business Partner knows how much Hard Ass drinks when the stakes are high, and he’s worried that drinking to numb the pain is going to backfire someday.

Coupled with instances from a primary source, secondary sources strengthen a claim.

So what? Who cares? Does analyzing character motivation from this many perspectives really matter? I hope so. Otherwise, I’m wasting a lot of time. 🙂 Hopefully, the extra step is worth the effort. I’m suspicious that sufficient support of a writer’s claims results in an effortless story, one that seemingly tells itself without rude interruptions from a writer, who’s trying to force character motivations down the reader’s throat.

I don’t want to be known as a pusher. 😉 Bestselling author has a better ring, don’t you think? (Hey, a girl can dream.)


2 Responses to “Analyzing Character Motivations like a Non-fiction Writer”

  1. nicolehelm Says:

    Of all the rejections I’ve received with feedback, all of them mentioned at least one instance of a character’s action not being supported by any discernible motivation. Of course, as the writer I could*see* the motivation, but I hadn’t made it clear on paper or to others. I think this breaks that phenomenon down in a very academic way (which the teacher in me greatly appreciates).

    • Hey, thanks! I realized the other day I spend a lot of time doing this sort of thing, and I wondered if I could get it down on paper in a way that made sense. Glad you took away something positive from reading it. 🙂


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