True story, true conversation. The names have been anonymized, but sure, one of them is me.
Three writers, all well published, talking about their manuscripts. And all are in the same place, just about halfway through. You authors know that there’s nothing worse than being in the middle .
Sure, you started out strong, and of course, can’t wait to get to the big finish. But first comes All. That. Middle. Where things have to happen and lives must change and we must keep a constant forward motion.
We talked here about what to do in those seemingly endless pages.
As we three writers said in the conversation:
Author number 1: I must be at the 47,000 word wall. I have a nice story I know where everybody’s going, but I still don’t understand what the inciting event was years ago. And why that popped up again in the present day. Sigh.
Author number 2: Exactly! I keep saying… Why why why?
Author number 3: I know the “why”. The question is whether I can make anyone else believe it! Or if my entire plot is just too stupid.
See how we are all focused on the same question? It’s Why. A believable reasonable why.
Because in a novel, of any genre, the engine is decision making. The character is offered a choice, and, based on their goals, makes a decision. And in that action, their personality is revealed. Each character has a motivation for doing what they do. And our job as authors is to understand why–as one author said why why why–they do it. What is motivating your character?
You are wise enough to know that in a multi-textured multi-layered novel, the why must be deep-seated and high stakes. The why of a detective, for instance, can’t just be that it’s their job to solve the crime. There has to be more. For an amateur sleuth it’s even more obvious: if they find a body, why don’t they just call the police? Why would they try to solve this crime on their own? Why a character does something is the entire core of the book.
So when you are stuck at the 47.000 word wall, ask yourself that question: why? Why would they do that? Here are some possible answers for you.
The lust for power is a classic motivation. Of course they’ll be an underlying why: they were bullied in grade school, their parents were super-critical, they are trying to prove themselves to themselves. But if their goal in the action is to gain power, ascendency, or position, their choice would reflect that.
Control is related to power, but not necessarily the same. A little person–the clichéd desk clerk or junior accountant or misfit–can seize considerable control. The airplane mechanic, the doctor’s receptionist, the liar, the betrayed husband, the wronged wife, the bullied assistant. Is your character trying to take control of a situation? Manipulate another person? If that’s their goal, how would they behave?
Fear is a classic motivator, and one you could use to have your character and make a choice they wouldn’t ordinarily make–and thereby reveal even more of their personality. If your character is terrified, how frightened are they? And what would they do to escape from their situation?
Another classic. Whether it’s romantic passion or a business passion or a passion for justice. If someone passionately loves something or someone, or passionately wants something or someone, their actions would grow out of that desire.
Well, of course. If your character has been wronged, or even feels they’ve been wronged, how will their actions evolve from that?
Is your character motivated by justice? What do they mean by justice? Justice to a good guy defense lawyer is different than justice to a mafia operative. What would your characters decision making-process be if they were in pursuit of what they considered justice?
Protecting another person
Another motivation that might allow you to take your character to a place they would not usually go. When a family member or friend or loved one is in danger, we all know that feeling of expansion, of pushing the boundaries, of desperation. Is what your character doing protecting another person? And ask yourself—it that true? Or simply n “I was only trying to help” rationalization?
Covering up a crime or a mistake
The cover-up is worse than the crime, how many times have we heard that? But that’s great fodder for a motivator. How will your poor character become in trapped in their desire to stay out of the line of inquiry? How far would they go to convince people they are not guilty? What actions would they take to make themselves look innocent?
Covering up their past
A character who has created a false resume for themselves must spend every moment making sure their lies are consistent. A character who’s hiding their past will not take a step without considering whether it will reveal the truth. Might that make your character behave a certain way?
Lots of possibilities in the money category. A person whose business is failing might cut corners, cheat or embezzle or lie or otherwise illegally or improperly create a new reality. A person who simply can’t pay the rent or buy food might would certainly consider certain actions. A person who already has money but simply is greedy for more—their every action would reflect that. Everything they do would be focused on what will be more profitable for them. And then–what does that tell you about the character?
Protecting their reputation
A person falsely accused or defamed becomes completely focused on correcting their personal story. Has someone lied about your character? What will they do as a result?
A shorthand for all these questions is: what does my character want, and how far will they go to get it. But if you can mine more deeply, and find out why they want whatever that is, that may propel your story forward.
What is motivating your main character? Does everyone of their actions reflect that goal? Let’s talk about it on Career Authors Facebook page. And then, get writing.