What’s Their Motive?

A first-person/subjective narrator always has a motive. As we discussed when a narrator learns things from other characters the story they are told affects what they learn. The same is true of the protagonist to reader dynamic. How a narrator wants to be perceived affects what they tell the reader and how they tell it, A character who considers their bad actions justifiable is unlikely to paint themselves as evil just like a character who does a great thing but doesn’t consider themselves great isn’t likely to portray it as great or heroic. Most obviously would a superhero portray their actions as heroic or simply part of the job?

This doesn’t mean ulterior motives are hidden from the reader, only that the narrator doesn’t have to tell the reader their motives. They can be implied by what the reader reads the character doing. If they lie to other characters all the time do we know they’re telling us the truth? Could they really not have saved that character? Was that choice really their only choice? And so on.

We’ve all read stories where the character makes a choice that they think is the right one while we, as the reader, are thinking it’s the wrong one. This should perhaps be differentiated from the type of decision a character might make like going into the abandoned warehouse without backup having appeared to have forgotten what happened when they did that fifty pages ago. A reader will follow a decision that has a logic for the character but will become frustrated by actions that have no logic for the character. This can be a tricky thing when we’re in a character’s head all the time. It can be particularly tricky if we want to hide the reasons for an action from the reader.

The mistake a lot of writers make is to assume that because we’re in the character’s head all the time we have to tell the reader everything. But if we establish that the character has a knack for escape do we need to explain how they’re going to escape as soon as they are caught? Do we need to explain what they’re going to do when they see an object that will make convenient weapon? Do we need to explain to the reader their developing feelings for another character? Not always. This is where showing not telling becomes important and the old adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ comes into play.

They’re the narrator, the reader is waiting for the escape. We’ve established they’re handy with the props or a quick thinker and mention them spotting the fire extinguisher. We show their feelings for other characters by the way they behave towards them, even if they’re actions contradict their words.

This doesn’t mean we never have to explain all these things we could have moments where the narrator is trying to work out what to do because they’re not sure they’ll escape, we can have them looking around for a weapon perhaps beginning to panic, we can have them wonder about what they feel for another character because they don’t know. This is something that can be lost when we tell the reader everything, just because we’re inside the character’s head doesn’t they know everything, not even their own feelings. It’s even possible for a narrator to be unsure of their own motives, they can tell themselves they’re doing something for one reason when in actual fact their doing it for a reason they aren’t aware of themselves.

This doesn’t mean we have to know all these things when we begin, we might get to the end of the first draft and realise that their motives aren’t what we thought they were. Or we might get to the end and realise the logic of their motives doesn’t quite add up and we need to develop something in the story. In some ways when we’re writing the first draft we’re getting to know the narrator the same way the reader will be.

Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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