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What drives your characters? Part 1

Most stories hinge on the question of attraction versus repulsion. A protagonist is either kept from achieving something he really wants to achieve or works to prevent something he can’t allow.

There are many motivators both tangible and intangible. They can be a desired object, a position, a return favor, praise, time spent together, a puppy, or promise of a leisure activity. 

The reward can be immediate or in the future. Too far in the future and both reward and punishment lose their impact. That is why the story and scene stakes should be more immediate.

The reward must also be meaningful to a character. We are all motivated by different things. We all like and need different things.

If you promise an introvert a party or a starring role in a play, she will most likely walk away.

If you promise an extrovert a week alone on a tropical island, he will likely decline unless the island has buried treasure.

Most of your characters, at some point, will do something either out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.

Dick might work toward solving the story problem out of hope of reward. He will gain something he very much wants: the girl, the job, the presidency or world peace.

Sally might work toward the story or scene goal out of fear of punishment or retaliation by an angry parent, aliens or an evil mob boss.

There are many types of rewards: self esteem, the esteem of others, connection, friendship, money, position, power, fame, or an adrenaline rush.

The most powerful is financial gain. Characters are willing to dress up in costumes and act silly to gain money. They are willing to stand out in the rain with a sign and beg for it.

If Dick is in debt, he may be willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get money. Money encourages characters to gamble, to invest in risky stocks, to commit murder in a Mystery. It can also motivate a child to do his chores or a worker to try harder to get a raise.

If Dick values esteem over money and offering to pay him doesn’t work, offering to publically praise him will.

Jane may resist the goal because she does not want the reward, strange as that may sound. Offer Jane the carrot of something she does not want, and you have the opposite effect than the one you desired. Offer Jane a punishment she’d enjoy and you’ve failed again.

If Jane hates being the center of attention, offering her the spotlight will send her running in the opposite direction.

If Sally prefers vanilla over chocolate, Dick giving her a Whitman’s Sampler for Valentine’s Day won’t earn him brownie points. Baking her chocolate chip cookies instead of sugar cookies won't convince her to do her homework.

Telling Dick he’ll have to stay home with Grandma while his parents go on vacation to Amish Country to shop for antiques won’t exactly break his heart, especially if Grandma is the cookie baking, curfew-ignoring type.

If Dick offers Jane a reward that she considers a punishment, they have conflict. Lets say, Dick suggests they go a Bed & Breakfast for the weekend. Jane might say yes or she might say no. Jane may love B&Bs, but she isn’t feeling particularly fond of Dick at the moment, so she refuses. Going might heal their relationship, but Jane meets internal resistance at the idea of being alone with Dick, so she declines the offer. She will come up with justifications as to why: too much work, conflicting meeting, too exhausted and wants to stay home in her jammies. Jane might agree to go but the confinement of the B&B causes them to fight rather than make up and Dick gets the opposite of what he hoped for. Jane can give in and go and end up having a good time, thus getting the result Dick hoped for but Jane didn't think possible.

If Dick and Jane are forced to work together to solve a mystery, Dick might agree because he loves a good puzzle. Jane might hate puzzle solving but agree because Dick appeals to her sense of justice or fair play. She might be secretly in love with Dick and covet time with him.

If Sally is secretly hoping for an engagement ring for Christmas and Dick buys her a diamond watch, she still received diamonds, just not the diamonds she was hoping for. Dick's next request will most likely be met with resistance if not refusal.

This type of conflict can play out among any set of characters be they friends, relatives, lovers, coworkers, etc. Characters tend to buy gifts, plan vacations, throw parties, arrange date activities and select movies for the weekend based on their wants, needs and personal preferences. This almost always causes conflict unless the two people are entirely in sync with each other in that regard.

Dick may plan a day at the football game, while Sally would rather stay home and watch a Jane Austen marathon. Okay, maybe that's just me, but the point is made.

Jane may plan a surprise party for Dick at work. If Dick hates being the center of attention or if he is trying to pull off a covert action, he will not be happily surprised by the party. It may make his scene goal much harder than he ever thought possible.

If a group of friends decides to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys for the weekend and Jane is either afraid of water or afraid of sharks, she'll refuse to go. No matter how many rewards Sally offers her (free margaritas all weekend, Jimmy Buffett playing at a local bar, lots of hot guys in skimpy bathing suits), none of that will matter to Jane. She could agree to go to the Keys but not scuba dive. The rest of the pack will consider her a wet blanket and refuse to pay for the drinks or refuse to go to the Buffett Concert in retaliation. Or they could enjoy her company so much that they don't care if she joins them in the ocean, as long as she goes along for the trip. If the reward of her company is alluring enough, they might offer to pay for the trip if Jane can't afford it.

Place characters with opposing ideas of reward in a relationship or in a scene and you have conflict.

Next week, we will explore the conflict of repulsion.

For more on using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback or E-book.

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