Importance of Character Motiviation & Backstory

For a while now I have been working on my novel, and for the most part it’s been going fairly well. I sit down, I type words, scenes appear. Sometimes when my shoulder/wrist is playing up I have  a moan and a sulk that I can’t write/find a comfy spot to write in. But generally I was happily typing along, watching as my word count reached 50k and equalled what ‘d written for NaNoWriMo (which had been the longest thing I’d ever written) and then it trundled on further. And I thought wow, could I possibly hit that mytical 100k words?!

And then these last 2-3 months I hit a wall. I wouldn’t say it was exactly writers block because I knew the scenes that I needed to write. The conversations that people needed to have but I was sort of stuck.

My problem? One of my characters just did not want to talk to me.  I have four main characters for three of them, I know how they’ll react. I know what is motivating them, why they make the choices they do. But one of them, he was just not playing ball.

I thought I knew what his motivation was, but when I wrote the first scene he was in it sort of felt like pulling teeth. And as I wrote that and the next one,  I was like ‘eeeh’ so I skipped another scene with him in because I just couldn’t get a feel for the conversation. And then I skipped another. I managed a few scenes later on where theres a bit of a conversation leading on to other things, but all the time I was unhappy about it. Finally I reached what I feel is sort of a pivotal scene for me at least.  Where all the four characters finally meet up.

I wrote a bit. I hated it. I re-wrote. I pondered. I queried with someone else. I pondered some more. I attempted to re-write.  Still unhappy.

All the time my head just kept telling me ‘just write’ which is what I learned from doing NaNo, but when the scene could head in two completely different ways and could affect the following scenes quite a lot I just couldn’t.

So I sort of left it alone for a while, I’ve had a busy (and somewhat stressful few months) I worked on a couple of short stories. (I probably have to many stories on the go at the moment but oh well.) But.. But.. the novel is on 73k words… that’s not just something I can leave. I don’t feel like this was ‘writing practice’ like my NaNo was. And it’s not even like it has a start, middle and end like my NaNo did either! I mean sure it might never get published but I should at least finish the damned thing!

Then it occurred to me, what if I change the characters name? I take forever to come up with names for characters, I like to make sure they fit. And I wondered if I changed the name to something that to me signified someone who was more cheerful and cheeky, perhaps that would work.

On Sunday I sat down and began to re-read over the first scene with this character. Yes I know, once a scene is written I should really leave any re-reads until it’s all done and I start editing. But in this case I a) needed to reacquaint myself with things and b) try and get to grips with this character.

So I started to re-write the scene and then had something of an epiphany.  I decided to change his opinion on something that had happened in his past and this suddenly gave a whole new spin on the character. Another reason for him to do what he does.  An actual Motivation!

The reason I had before, made him come across as a bit of a dick, and also made you question as to why my main character put up with him, why didn’t she just leave. (nothing wrong with having a character who is a dick, but I didn’t have enough there to write with!)

There was nothing for them to talk about, and she was keeping something secret, and it made her seem like a bit of a cow for perhaps ‘leading him on’ (she isn’t supposed to be).  But this new motivation, this added dimension to the character? It changes things a lot! (Including his personality to an extent.)

There are feelings & reasons behind his choices, something that he doesn’t want to talk about (and really should). He’s a bit lost and throwing himself into anything that will keep him occupied.

I’ve realised as I write this that the other part of my problem was that until that point I didn’t really know his back story, well I sort of did but I wasn’t using his history to affect decisions he made. With the other 3 characters I was. I know that one of them is quite young, and while she considers herself friends with one of them, she’s still somewhat prejudice towards him (but doesn’t realise it). He in turn is very old, and has the patience of a saint. He’s seen a lot and takes things in his stride. And my main character? Well she’s got her reasons too. But not this guy, until now.

I will admit that I haven’t written any new scenes since I had this revelation but I’m hoping now that I have something to work off.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Importance of Character Motiviation & Backstory

  1. catconnor

    I’ve been struggling with a similar thing over the last few weeks – new character, really liked him, but couldn’t get into his head. Turned out I needed to talk to someone who does what he does, to understand him a bit better – also, I changed his name! 🙂

    Have fun with your new found character motivation!!

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