Looking at the Big Picture – Are Your Character Motivations Working?

Sometimes when you’re editing, you can find yourself spending so much time focusing on the line by line detail that you lose track of the big picture. It’s something I’ve had a lot of trouble with writing my second novel, Cradlesnatch, partly because it’s taking so long to get the first draft down on paper. I find I lose track of the story’s inner connections.

I wasn’t sure what to do about the problem. When I’m sitting at the computer all I see is the section of manuscript I’m working on. It felt like I needed to make room in my head to get a grasp of the story as a whole. So I started taking afternoon walks.

It’s working.

Walking helps me test whether my story elements are woven together strongly enough. It allows my story breathing space to evolve.

And I’ve discovered a few golden rules about the ‘bigger picture’ which I thought I’d share:

The Problem of Passivity

Sometimes you write an action scene, and it just doesn’t seem as exciting as you know it should be. In Cradlesnatch there’s a scene where one of the main characters is kidnapped. Should be an exciting event. Only the way I’d written things she was kidnapped while she slept.

Golden Rule No. 1: Your main character needs to be proactive in getting themselves into trouble.

I’ve changed the scene so now my character is suspicious of someone, follows them during the night, and is subsequently kidnapped.

Square Peg in a Round Hole

I had a scene I knew needed to be in the story. I sort of knew where in the timeline it needed to be. So I wrote it and hoped for the best. Only it didn’t read right. Chronology wasn’t enough.

Golden Rule No. 2: Don’t try to crowbar a scene in to a story.

I had to think about how the scene fitted with the flow of the story. What stimulus occurred which led the characters to engage in the scene. What motivated them.

Getting from A to B without Contrivance

Another important reason to look at motivations is if you want your characters to travel to a particular place, perhaps to accidentally meet someone. It’s so easy to use some feeble excuse to get them there.

Golden Rule No. 3: Beware of the coincidental and the convenient

There are scenes where I’ve had to think seriously about the why and the how that gets my characters in the right place at the right time.

Give Me One Good Reason

Cradlesnatch is a journey story, so in the opening section my character needed to begin her journey. Only her life was already so difficult she’d wanted to leave home for ages. It didn’t make sense that she would simply pack up and go without any additional stimulus.

Golden Rule No. 4: If you want to make your character jump, fire some bullets at their feet.

So I had to add something pretty big to make her decide to leave when I wanted her to.

Adding Action with No Emotion isn’t a Good Thing

While editing a story, events can change. A scene which initially had the main character bribing her way out of trouble, suddenly has her being kissed for the first time. But actions lead to reactions and it’s all too easy to forget to edit your character’s emotional reaction to events.

Golden Rule No. 5: The scene has changed, so change the sequel.

Now I make a point to check that my characters’ reactions and their subsequent decisions grow and develop to fit my changing story events.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

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4 thoughts on “Looking at the Big Picture – Are Your Character Motivations Working?

  1. Well said, Lorrie. I like your step-by-step approach to writing this post. Lots of take home points here1

  2. futuredoll says:

    Love these tips! Glad I found your blog!

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