Today we welcome our special guest Kalayna Price! Kalayna is the author of Grave Witch, first in the exciting Alex Craft urban fantasy series from Roc, and the Novels of Haven from Bell Bridge Books. She draws her ideas from the world around her, her studies into ancient mythologies, and her obsession with classic folklore. Her stories contain not only the mystical elements of fantasy, but also a dash of romance, a bit of gritty horror, some humor, and a large serving of mystery. She is a member of SFWA and RWA, and an avid hula-hoop dancer who has been known light her hoop on fire. To find out more, please visit her at www.kalayna.com. Welcome, Kalayna!
If you hang out with enough writers, or are one yourself, you’ve probably heard someone say “well, this was supposed to happen, but my character refused to do it.” When writers talk about characters like they have independent thought, our non-writer friends tend to look at us like we’re completely mad. And yet, most writers will tell you that characters occasionally refuse to follow the plot. If manhandled into a situation, the character will either fall flat on the page or the resulting scene will be painful to write and uninteresting to read. This leads me to believe that either writers really are a bunch of schizophrenic loons, or our inner storytellers have an intrinsic understanding of character motivations. Personally, I’m hoping for the latter, but what does it mean to have an understanding of character motivation.
Motivation is usually addressed in relationship to the main plot. It is what drives your character through the plot and pushes him to pick himself and keep going despite all the challenges in the story. To use the very classic example of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy journeys to see the wizard because she desperately needs to get home because she thinks her Aunty Em is sick. Her Aunt being sick and Dorothy’s need to get back to her propels Dorothy through the story, it directs all her major decisions, and yet it is not the only motivation or measure for Dorothy’s actions and interactions with other characters. If main motivation were the only deciding factor in how a story progressed, a hundred people could be given the same one line goal/motivation/conflict prompt and they would all come out with the same story. Thankfully, that just isn’t the case.
A character is more than their current set of circumstances. A character is the product of what has happened to them in the past. They have backstory, most of which will never be explicit on the page, but which the writer knows. That backstory helps shape the way a character thinks and creates a precedent for their actions (which doesn’t mean the character won’t change over the course of the story—in fact, a good well rounded character should be forced to change by the events of the story). When a character absolutely refuses to do what the writer thinks should happen, it is typically because that action wouldn’t resonate with the character, many times because something in the character’s history is ‘off’ with the current situation.
So, if your character isn’t cooperating, or if he is falling flat on the page, go back and study his history. Do you know his backstory? Is there something there that doesn’t jive with the actions in the scene? Or maybe there is something there that can help them in his current situation? Is he acting ‘in character’?
Of course, there is that other possibility to. It’s possible the characters really are talking to us . . . and the men in white coats are our friends.