The Why of Story

by Sylvie Kurtz


“Intense desire is the foundation of all achievement,” I read recently in an article. Now the article talked about weight loss, but this statement could also apply to a good story. Intense desire is the foundation of an interesting character and a gripping conflict.

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Start with the Why

Does your main character have an intense desire for something? Or is his interest in his goal a whim that blows with the wind? Only if your character has a burning desire will he willingly sacrifice the protective armor of his flaw to reach his goal. Sacrifice signals change, and change shows growth. Without a burning desire, the first obstacle to cross his path would have him give up and turn his attention in a new direction…still the same person he always was. The stronger the desire, the stronger the sense of urgency. Urgency pushes your plot forward. Is he willing to do whatever it takes–even act against his own best interest–to reach his goal? Have you made it impossible for him to turn away from the challenge? This desire becomes the cornerstone of your story, but desire without understanding the motivation for this desire can lead to confusion for the reader.

In real life we don’t have to understand why people do what they do. In fiction, why characters do what they do lays the foundation for the reader to accept the desire and the conflict that ensues. The character may not understand why he does what he does, but the reader should feel as if even the most demented of characters acts in a way consistent with the way the author has presented the character.

Pinpointing your character’s motivation allows you to have him act believably. Knowing the “why” behind his desire to accomplish something helps you drive the plot forward organically.

Motivation has deep roots. Motivation is personal. Motivation has specific reasons.

Look to the Past

Where do you find this motivation? In the character’s past. Why? Because children, with their pliant brains, download a tremendous amount of information in a short period of time to learn how to survive in this world. They take everything literally, and their parents’ and caregivers’ behaviors and beliefs become their own. That’s also why adults can easily break their young charges. Children haven’t yet developed the ability to distinguish between real and perception. Imagine your mother or your father or a trusted teacher telling you during those tender years that you’re stupid or that you’re not good enough or that you’ll never amount to anything. Those messages go straight to the subconscious, who’ll make sure that circumstances of life prove those beliefs true, and those beliefs become the truths that unconsciously shape behavior.

As children grow older, they become less susceptible to outside programming, but by that time, information about how the world works already fills their subconscious. So the situation that starts the main character’s flaw usually happens in the formative years (birth to twelve) and, as he grows up, other experiences “prove” that the flaw acts as good protection against pain.

Fear Colors the World

What happened in the past to give your character his view of life right now? What situation started molding fear? What situation cemented this fear? What decision did he have to make to “survive” the situation? How did that decision influence how he sees the world? How he sees himself? What pain is he protecting himself from? He reveals how he perceives himself and the world through his behavior in the present.

Work that process for your hero–analyze his fears, where they started, what behaviors they cause, how those behaviors are keeping him from being his true self–to discover why he wants what he wants.

Don’t settle for the first answer, or what you’ll get is surface motivation. He wants X, because… Keep digging. Keep asking why until no more becauses bubble up from the depth of his soul. In that space, you’ll discover his emotional weak spot. This emotional weak spot fuels his deepest desire.

Use this understanding of what makes your character tick to give him compelling reasons for his every decision and action as your plot progresses forward. Show through dialogue, thoughts, exposition, or especially his actions, what drives your character to act the way he does.

Turn a Weakness into a Strength

Then turn his weakness into a strength to take him across his arc of change. Every weakness has some positive aspect. The flaw then becomes a secret skill that helps him overcome the conflict by using his flaw for good rather than protection. He may have grown selfish for self-preservation reasons. This self-preservation instinct allows him to keep fighting when anyone else would give up, saving the day. This result proves to him that the ability to change lies within his means, which then allows him to reach his goal–or something better.

Motivation, like goals, must be clear enough for the writer to express in a few words, important enough to cause the character to make a decision or take action, and impossible for the reader to miss.

As you revise, ask, “Why?” of every action to reveal weaknesses in motivation. If the “because” answer isn’t logical to the character you’ve set up, then you need to go back and shore up the motivation. This technique will allow you to achieve a deeper, more dramatic story, and a more complex character.

If you do your “mining” job well, if you understand why your character does what he does, the reader will never get jarred out of your story dream and wonder, “Why’d he do that?”

© 2009

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