Top Ten (Okay Eleven) Things You Should Know About Your Own Book, Part Four


I’ve been talking recently—well, I guess recently is a bit confusing as I’ve had so many weeks off—but I’ve been covering questions we writers can ask ourselves about our own book to understand it better, spot weaknesses, and make the book better. These are things we can do before we write a book and during the writing of a book, but mostly, it’s things we can ask ourselves after we finish that first draft and we are getting ready for the first major rewrite.

Wait. You don’t rewrite? Interesting. Most writers, professional and soon to be professional, know our books need to be rewritten before they are ready to be seen by NY. We know that we need to know as much as possible about our book/plot/character/conflict before we start with the actual rewriting. It is simple stuff, but important.

Disclaimer: All of us go through certain procedures and the Q&A I’ve been writing about are just one writer’s methodology. Not all. Some of us do it differently, but it all comes back the one most important question — Does it work?!?

05. Primary motivation: What is the protag’s (MC – main character’s) primary motivation? Okay, I admit it – this is an easy one. But perhaps harder, what is the antag’s (BBU – Big Bad Ugly’s) main motivation?

I am going to assume that you know your main character’s motivation. Kill the BBU that is trying to destroy the planet. Protect the MC’s family/children/wife/husband. Learn to dance so MC can sleep with the sexy dance instructor. Steal the golden egg so the MC can save the family farm. Whatever.


So many fantasy books have a BBU with no clear cut motivation. The Big Bad Ugly is just going to destroy the planet. Ummm. Why? What does he get out of it? A circulating ball of rubble. The end. If he is doing it of out revenge/hatred/something similar, then how much better to enslave and torture the people responsible for whatever happened to tick him off so badly. Why does he want to do the dirty deed that you, the writer, need him to do in order to have a story?

04.  Who or what stands in the way of the MC?

In Faith’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk, (for the sake of argument. Just go with it) Jack is not a hard worker or very wise, yet he has a goal of helping his mom and saving the farm, as long as he doesn’t have to work at it. So when the magical beans grow into a beanstalk a mile high, Jack climbs it. Everything in the overhead palace is a danger, but he steals the golden egg and the goose who laid it, kills the giant, (who was just being a normal giant) and saves the farm. But nothing really stands in the way of Jack. No noose tightens around his neck. Jack doesn’t grow or change at all. Jack is freaking lucky. That is it.

I am currently reading four or five books at once. One is a book where the MC is trying to—I think—find and kill one big BBU who is doing evil stuff. In the course of that attempt, the MC is facing one after another minor evil creatures and each minor one is trying to stop the main character from reaching that one certain BBU and killing him. I think. It isn’t real clear. Like with Jack, things just happen. The writer doesn’t weave an ever tightening noose around the neck of the MC and force the MC to fight and change and grow to achieve the goals. That is what the increasing conflict is supposed to do—make the main character fight and change to achieve the required ends.

Worse, this book goes back to number 05. There is no continuity and no reason for each of the minor evil minions who come after the MC. It isn’t tied together well. It is just one roll of the dice over and over with different minor BBUs. Yes, the character learns something (very minor) about the biggest BBU some of the time, and the MC occasionally gets closer to the BBU when one of the minions is overcome, but…why are the minions doing what they are doing? They aren’t soldiers under orders. At least I don’t think they are. It isn’t clear. It is so random. So, while the biggest BBU may have a reason, a motivation for his actions, and the MC has reasons and motivations, none of the minor BBUs have any reason to be following orders or attacking the MC. I have put the book down 5 or 6 times over the last few weeks.

As I read back over this, it sounds like a rant. It isn’t. It’s surprise. That surprise has sent me back to my own WIP and I have looked at the last Jane Yellowrock book several times to make sure I know the BBU’s motivation. To make sure the things that stand in her way are real problems and not just something I threw on the page to get word count.

What are your main character’s motivations? What the minor BBUs and major BBU’s motivations? When you write them down do they make sense? What stands in the way of the MC achieving his/her goals? Are the MCs having to fight and grow and change to achieve them?




34 comments to Top Ten (Okay Eleven) Things You Should Know About Your Own Book, Part Four

  • This is a great series of tips, Faith; I am following with interest. Thanks as usual for sharing! 🙂


  • Villains without a clear sense of purpose and (at least) internal logic for their actions — that is one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader, and something I work hard to avoid as a writer. As you say, motivating the protag is usually something that authors manage to do (although not always), but the evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil antagonist just bugs me, and it’s way, way too common.

    These are wonderful posts, Faith. Thanks for giving us all something to think about. Again.

  • When I was younger, I tended to write about the unfathomable evil, the BBU that just wanted to destroy everything (another reason why I was certain I wasn’t ready to publish back then), but I eventually evolved and began giving my villains more depth. Even a god should have some sort of motivation, because, as you said, what’s the point of just destroying the world? What do they get out of that?

    In Rogue 5 it’s all about order and control for the villain. He despises disorder, chaos, and things he perceives as uncontrollable.

    In the fantasy trilogy, it’s revenge for both the minor and major BBU. However, their desires are somewhat different and the scope of the major is far broader, to the point where its manipulations began hundreds of years ago and spans worlds. He’s become more controlled and calculating since his initial rage-fest of long ago. Don’t wanna go into that one too much because it’d become an entire essay. I have pages of motivation for those two and even a way to show that the lesser BBU is being manipulated as well, which is sure to anger him severely. 😉

  • Yay – I finally get to participate! (I’m always behind in my blog reading and get to your posts late.)

    My protag starts as a brilliant Healer priestess who simply wants to be the best in her profession. In the temple there are two priesthoods. As a member of the elite priesthood, life has been easy for her. When she first hears whispers of the lesser priesthood overthrowing her priesthood in a temple coup, she dismisses it until she’s commanded by her goddess to work with one of the “inferior” priesthood to stop it. Now, it’s for real and she’s motivated to survive, to protect her family and friends.

    Some of what stands in her way is her own prejudice against the other priesthood and her pride in her own abilities. But things don’t always go her way and she’s not sure how to deal with it. Later, she’s opposed by those who are a part of the coup. In the end, her motivation shifts to wanting to Heal the temple, her city, and her people.

    My BBU is the temple Overseer who wants control and then revenge. He was abused as a child, then treated badly as a member of the lesser priesthood. He learned to depend only on himself. He worked his way up the hierarchy through genuine ability, but also by treachery, because you can’t depend on luck or the gods. He hides behind the mask of a peacemaker, but makes things happen behind the scenes. Finally in a position of power, he plans to overthrow the other priesthood in a coup, aided by a captured demon. After that, the sky’s the limit.

  • Julia

    Faith, this post helps me crystalize something that’s been working for me lately. With the new WIP, I’ve been focusing on plot from the perspective of the antagonist. He has a strong, clear, and distinct goal–and a good reason for wanting what he does. What’s it going to take for him to acheive it? What does he do first? When the good gals foil the first part of his plan, what does he do next?

    This is an entirely different way for me to approach plotting, and I think it’s (finally) helping me put together a more action-driven story. It helps me conceptualize action and response… especially helpful in a story with a main character whose main motivation is stopping the bad guy (and getting her life back.)

  • TwilightHero

    What I said for your last post applies to this one as well – as you noted – so I won’t bother saying it again. Great series! Eagerly awaiting the next instalment 🙂

  • MaCrae

    Main BBU’s motivation- Self-preservation, revenge, knowledge, power.

    Minor BBU’s motivations:
    BBU #1 Power, stronger army, bigger kingdom
    BBU #2 just doing his job (he has to or his family will suffer)
    BBU #3 Loves taking advantage of people, revenge, he’s just a big jerk
    BBU #4 Revenge, justification, doing things the way he thinks they should be run

  • sagablessed

    So WIP #2 this brings some very important questions to light, and like in real life no single easy answer.
    Is the BBU the oil company trying to take private land? Is the BBU the xenophobic policewoman? Is the BBU the doctor who killed MC’s partner so long ago? Is it the shadowy ‘Employer’, who seeks to retain the Skilled as personal servants? Is the BBU the BIA agent trying to cover up a massacre 100 years old, who also works for the ‘Employer’? So many questions. The biggee: do focus on just one or two, or let the story flow with this many?

    What stands in David’s way? The memory of his long dead love? Kyle’s irritation over being compared to Christopher at every turn? Is it the children of the landowner, who’s son hate the white man? Is it the operative of the uber-secret Federal agency in charge of monitoring the Skilled? Again: do I cut some, or let the story flow?

    And what are David’s motivations? Well, I know what those are.

  • Thanks, Faith. I’m wrestling with the goal issue right now in Darwen III. Thanks for putting it so clearly.

  • My pleasure, Adrian.

    David, me too. I seldom toss books across the room anymore (especially when they on Kindle) but I still feel the urge when a bad guy is just bad for the heck of it.

    Daniel, I think we all started out that way — not thinking through the BBU’s motivation. Fortunately we all can grow as writers.

  • I went back to your last post to help me clarify my thinking on goals and motivations. Thanks again for these helpful posts!

    MC #1: Goal is to start a new life and do good, motivation is to atone for her past life as a Killer (which she now realizes wasn’t always about doing good, though she thought so at the time)
    –What stands in her way is her lack of knowledge/experience with “normal” people, the fear and distrust others have for Killers, BBU #1 who wants to kill her, and BBUs 1-3 who are making it look like she’s committing crimes

    MC #2: Goal is to restore order to planet without resorting to violence; motivation is to prove that her negotiation/people skills are still useful, relevant, and viable
    –What stands in her way is her doubt about her skills after a major failure in the past, BBU#2 who is her immediate superior and disagrees with her approach, and the rising crime rate brought on by overcrowding from refugees and the conspiracy of BBUs 1-3

    BBU #1: Goal is to destroy MC#1; motivation is revenge for the role MC#1 played in the downfall of the Killer Squad

    BBU #2: Goal is to take charge of the planet (and eventually the universe); motivation is to return to the old ways and restore order through military might

    BBU #3: Goal is to become leader of the universal government, not just the one planet; motivation is desire for power and to be respected as a strong leader

  • EKC, I think you have excellent motivation for them all. And I like when so many of the things that stand in the way of a main character are internal, and in insufficient world view. Good work!

    Julia. Yes! All this motivation stuff and stand-in-the-way stuff are all about action and plot progression. You got it prefectly!

    Thanks, Twilight. 🙂

  • MaCrae, I like. And yes, sometimes characters (like people we know) are just big jerks. 🙂 That power thing only makes them … jerkier? LOL You know what I mean.

    Saga, you are in the middle of a multilayered story, with no single clear-cut BBU. That is not a problem in a series, as long as the biggest lose end gets tied up at the end of each book, leaving the smaller loose ends to be addressed in the next book. It is pretty much what I do in the Skinwalker, Jane Yellowrock series. I say write and see what happens. Or, outline and see what form it takes, which is what I’d do.

    AJ, I thought by this time in my career I’d be further along, knowing *what I do and how to do it*. I am not and do not. Each book is different an deach book is a challenge.

  • Sisi, I think you have it all well thougth out, and I love seeing the different emphasis you put on the elements when answering different questions. You have clearly looked at this deeply. Good work!

  • Unicorn

    Oh dear, this is where it all falls apart for my story. The main BBU has a good motivation, the MC has a good motivation, but the minor BBUs? Blegh.
    The main BBU is still grieving the death of his mate, with whom he was very close. Because this grief is eating him up from the inside, he has only one burning desire that keeps him going: vengeance. He wants to kill all the descendants of those responsible for her death (he’s a monster and centuries old). This quest keeps his mate alive in his mind, it’s something for him to hold on to, but it has also turned him evil.
    The minor BBUs are very messy. Minor BBU #1 was rescued as a, um, juvenile (he’s a monster too) and raised by the main BBU and his mate, so loyalty – and, to a large extent, fear – force him to please the BBU in any way he can.
    Minor BBU #2… is difficult. She wants power, and as much of it as possible; through serving the main BBU, she can extend her life span and gain power amongst other monsters. But it doesn’t work properly. It needs revising.
    The MC and his sidekick are the descendants that the BBU has vowed vengeance on. Both want to protect their families and friends, who are in enormous danger of the BBU. Both want to hold on to each other, because their friendship is all they’ve got. Again, the MC’s motivations are clear-cut, but the sidekick is much more difficult; she’s temperamental and easily provoked, and the main BBU has provoked her hugely, but only anger won’t be able to carry her through all the trials they have to face throughout the story. Fiercely loyal, she wants to protect her friends and family, especially the MC (who is the only friend she really has). She doesn’t work as well as the MC does, though. She needs work.
    And because of the minor BBU’s weaknesses, number 04, what stands in the way of the MC, is a terrible mess. To a large extent, he stands in the way of himself; his self-doubt, his inexperience, his enormous reluctance to lead others into battle. But the minor BBUs? Yeah. Major problems. Thanks for the post, Faith, and for showing me one of the hugest flaws in my entire manuscript. That’s what rewriting is for, I guess.

  • sagablessed

    Thanks, Faith. Yup, each book has a wrap up for one big issue, though this one has me concerned. What I want as the wrap…well…we’ll see. It has already deviated from my precise plotline, darn it. But I perservere.

  • sagablessed

    As to David’s Thieftaker, Lucienne’s Crazy in the Blood, and your Blood Trade… I need to put the squeeze on the publishers?



    We take no prisoners, nor do We offer quarter.

  • Unicorn, making sure those minor guys have adaquate motivation is more important than many think, so taking a good look at them is always wise. 🙂

    Saga, we do perservere. Perserverence, far more so than creativity, is what makes us writers. As to our books, the publishers are all powerful! Hail to the publishers. LOL

  • sagablessed

    In writing, “What if” are not the saddest words, but the most exciting. To perservere because of them is those greatest gift of all. That is what makes us writers, not the publishers. The story must be told. Eff the play, for without the story, the play is bland.

    Please forgive any perceived snark, my dear Faith, for none was intended. You have the gift of both the story and the publishability. A great accomplishment: be proud of that, and honor it with more stories.

  • sagablessed

    Because of you and the others here at MW, I shall perservere. I have hope; I have faith; I have stories. I am not the only one. Another thing to take pride in: the power to inspire.
    Hail the bloggers at MW! May your words give comfort, wisdom, and joy to others.

    Yeah, feeling a bit over the top. But what I said is true. Look at comments from others here on MW: yours an the other contributers. You guys give us honesty, as well as boosts to our spirits. I thought it was time you all got bit back.

    So there.

  • I haven’t had a chance to read the other responses yet (busy day, but I hope to get back to them), but my 05 and 04s:

    05: The primary protagonist initially wants to (1) truly understand why her father was killed, which means understanding the nature of the sacred law he broke (i.e. do not go near the forbidden place – why it’s forbidden is integral to the plot) and (2) escape the oppressive culture and especially the arranged marriage she is being sold into. That’s where she starts, but she evolves – she isn’t initially aware of the existence of the BBU – and her reactions to both 1 and 2 eventually lead to her deciding to oppose the BBU. As for the BBU: his goals are two-fold (and related): (1) Commit a total ethnic genocide against the people he blames for the death of his long-lost love and (2) attain immortality (because the death of his lost love has made him fear death). He’s not terribly concerned that achieving #2 will spark a deadly apocalpyse.

    04: This is more complicated. The protag initially has to overcome challenges in her home culture that put her at a disadvantage. When she escapes that, just figuring out how to survive in her new reality is a challenge for a while. At each stage she evolves and grows in power, but also learns more about the BBU and his goals. She mentally connects the character of the BBU with the oppressive authoritarian leaders of her home, and this gives her the impetus to oppose him. Of course, the BBU is politically powerful and has a lot of resources at his disposal. So… things just keep getting more complicated as the story goes on.

  • For my solo WIP, I just don’t know yet. I’ve gotten far enough into the WIP that I do know that I have to decide SOON, and this is going to require some serious backtracking into previous chapters. I’ve got three major candidates and one minor one, but which is the central BBU and which ones are going to be minor baddies, or even unexpected help – I just haven’t decided. OtOH, I have a seven hour meeting tomorrow (Faculty Development Day!) which means I will probably be so bored that my brain will work out the problem while I’m supposed to be concentrating on a PowerPoint presentation.

    For Emily and I’s WIP, the former main BBU has become a minor BBU. Michael is a tool (literally and figuratively) of the real BBUs. Michael wants revenge on the Winter Court King for not promoting him to Sword, and on Rafe for getting what Michael thinks of as his rightful job/honors. Victor Farringdon believes the King has been such a monumental failure as a king that it’s time his line was replaced and a better person/lineage took over. He’s not entirely wrong, but he also believes the ends justify the means so he’s willing to commit murder and treason to become king himself. Killing Deor, the MC, is a regrettable necessity in his mind. Geoff, crown Prince of the Goblins and the Winter Court King’s own godson, knows anything that destabilizes the Winter Court will raise the prestige and leverage of his own kingdom so he’s aiding Victor while maintaining plausible deniability. Also, as a Goblin he absolutely loves mischief and humiliating other people, so he’s getting a huge ego boost out of having a very public relationship with the MC while planning to let Victor kill her before she or anyone else can figure out that she’s the long lost heir.

  • Thanks, Saga. 🙂

    Stephen, this sounds positively lovely! I like how the BBU’s motivations are intertwinded. Good job.

    Sarah, (and others in this stage of a book) I understand that method of working — start in and see if it works, then work out the problems later. I do that a lot (says the dedicated plotter and outliner) when starting some brand new project. If the voice and the MC are working, then the BBU’s personal problems *can* be added in later, when I decide to do an outline. For me it usually is about 30 pages in, when I stop and outline and plot, but whatever works for you. It is a perfectly acceptable way to write a book. You know — the old MW mantra of There Is No One Way To Do Anything.

    Also, I really like political motivations mingling with the personal ones in your second novel.

  • Thanks, Faith. I have thought about this (a lot) over the years, and it’s good to hear that it makes sense to someone besides me. Now I need to dig into that perseverence you and Saga talked about and finish writing the book!

  • mudepoz

    I love this post.
    Hm, book that needs overhaul, BBU wants to absorb all the energy so he can raise everyone’s utility bill (great for a YA book, eh? Yeah, that’s why it needs a major overhaul.)
    Second book, the BBU is a cat. Hey, one of the MC is a dog.

  • Go for it, SiSi!

    Mud, haha. Actually, it can be a little looser for a YA, and since I do know the BBU’s motivation for your first book, I think it works well. As for the second one, natural enmity works well in the animal kingdom. But remember that the human counterparts also have to have motivation.

  • mudepoz

    < *Kof* In the video, please note the Hodag is described as having feline characteristics. *Meow*. Well, except for the serpent part. And it allegedly ate white bulldogs, not Basset hounds. But still…
    See, I'm NOT being silly.
    Okay, yeah, a little.
    It's a WI trait apparently, and the Hodag was the greatest prank EVER!

  • Razziecat

    OK, let’s see if I can make this coherent:

    MC, Thorne, wants to stop the dark god Keshal from manifesting because the last time Keshal walked the world, his uncontrolled power caused great violence, destruction and excess in all things; not evil per se, but melded with humans, uncontrolled power tends to run in that direction.

    Standing in his way are:
    –The Herald, a self-proclaimed priest of Keshal, who wants to meld Keshal with humanity–to elevate humankind–believing that pain, horror and evil are signs of humanity’s incompleteness. He doesn’t see Keshal as dark or evil; the god was his family’s ancestral patron, and his devout belief in Keshal kept him alive when his family was murdered and he was enslaved (and helped him nurture his magic in secret until he could escape).
    –Thousands of loyal followers, some professional soldiers, but many ordinary people whom the Herald cured of a deadly plague in Keshal’s name.
    –The disease itself, which is spreading far and wide.
    –The loss of an ancient magical artifact once used to defeat Keshal.
    –And, last but never least, Thorne’s inability to trust his own magic and let it grow to its fullest extent.

  • I know you aren’t being silly Mud. 🙂

    Razzie, I think you did a great job with this. Seriously! Especially the internal things that complicate the issue within Thorn. I am sucker for disease as a complication, because that is one BBU who doesn’t need a motivation.

  • 05. Motivation:

    MC’s motivation: She wants to be a landmaiden (healer & worker of small charms, in service of the Land to help its people), and in achieving this forsake her crown for good.

    BBU’s ultimate motivation: He wants to find her and kill her once and for all, ensuring he retains the throne he stole. He even intends to start a war in an attempt to flush her out of where he suspects she’s hiding. He works through a henchminion in Book 1.

    Henchminion (Book 1’s BBU)’s motivation: Find the princess. Kill her. Ensure power of his own; namely, be rewarded with the hand of Ultimate BBU’s daughter.

    [At this point I should re-iterate that while I’ve taken pains to introduce Ultimate BBU from afar, Henchminion doesn’t show up until halfway through. As you know, Bob, this is a YA coming of age / journey fantasy and MC spends the first part so focused on her goals, trying and failing in other ways, and in such denial of her royal self, that she has other lessons to learn first. So in some ways, the antagonist for the first part (and for much of the rest of the book, honestly) is the MC herself.]

    04. Obstacles:

    I would like to think that the obstacles escalate, and there’s a reason for all of them. Especially as the recurring theme of reminders/encounters/messages that she needs to rule her country, dammit, keep hitting her on the head. And her own narrow-mindedness/fear. And also in the magical challenges she faces and her own crises of faith. And the bad guys she has to deal with on the road, who have their own motivations. And … well, without boring you, let’s just say that things get even more complicated after that. 😉

  • Laura, I like. But I think you do need hints of the BBU (and/or BBU minion) in the first part of the book. (You may already have this, I know, so feel free to totally ignore this!) Like in the Harry Potter books, there are dark hints and unspoken secrets that Harry is aware of, and becomes even more aware of as the first and second books progress. This creates tension and lets the reader know that the problems the character faces now are only going to escalate. This is a way to create tension even when the actual crises are far off in the future.

  • Razziecat

    Faith, thank you! 🙂 This particular series of posts is really helping me to focus in on the most essential elements of this story. I’m starting to think I can actually beat this book into submission!

    And Laura – Henchminion! What a great word! 🙂

  • Thanks, Faith. Hm, I *do* have mentions of the BBU, mostly about how awful of a king he’s been lately, but Henchminion doesn’t get mention until he shows up. But I just realized how I could make it work. Ally who makes an appearance near the end of Chapter 5 (and shows up again later, at the same time as Henchminion), could definitely mention him by name to MMC. And then FMC will ask about him. And MMC will have bad things to say about him. Could that work?

    Razzie – 😀 I can’t entirely take the credit, though. Sherwood Smith coined it (maaaybe, I could be wrong) in her short story, “Excerpts from the Diary of a Henchminion”. Fun stuff. 🙂

  • It is my pleasure, Razzie. Most of my own books show a lot of bruises for the same reason.

    Laura, It could work. I think the problem would be being too heavy handed. Hints work best. Think Harry Potter when he first heard of the evil that killed his parents. Hints and shadows.