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Guest Blogger Ian Walkley “Character Motivation and Behavior”

Character Motivations and Behavior

by Ian Walkley

Coming up with fresh storylines is a tough part of the business of writing fiction. But publishers and readers are always looking for fresh ideas. After all, there is a limit to how often people want to read about a hero whose wife gets murdered so he can chase the bad guy, the alcoholic, divorced cop who redeems himself when his daughter is kidnapped, or the terrified victim creeping through a dark old house, too curious for their own good.

In suspense or mystery novels much of the reader’s enjoyment is derived from tension and conflict in the interplay of characters. Who did it? Why? Who’ll be next? Will the hero solve the mystery before the bad guy gets the stakes character? Apart from contrived delays in revealing information, suspense often comes about from the decisions made by the protagonist, the antagonist and the stakes character(s) about what actions they will take. Such decisions are mostly determined by the character’s background, judgment, or motivations.

So, how can character motivations and behavior be used for creating new kinds of suspense?

Firstly, we can associate the character responses to the motivations that underpin them in ways that create tension and arouse the reader’s emotions. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander essentially wants the freedom to be herself and live undisturbed. Much of her behavior is driven by her reaction to the actions of others. If she must have a guardian, she wants one who will let her be, not one who controls her. After her guardian Bjurman rapes her, one possible reaction would have been for Salander to kill him. But Stieg Larsson chose to maintain the suspense by continuing the relationship. Deciding to control him, rather than kill him, Salander chooses to blackmail him with a video so he will allow her access to her money, and leave her alone. Her motivations for her actions fit her character perfectly, and the method she uses also fits her character. But her actions are still a huge surprise to the reader.

Introducing a motivation that results in a particular type of response helps to bring out the character dimensions. Let’s consider two basic human responses—fight or flight. There are many behaviors between the two extremes. Fighting can be anything from strong words, sarcasm, ridicule, or verbal abuse through to pushing and shoving, or killing someone. Flight can be anything from stony silence or folding arms and turning away, through to physically fleeing. Finding the right response on the scale for our character gives the writer enormous scope. Linking the response with the character’s motivation does not require long flashbacks about some terrible past experience, but can often be accomplished with simple dialogue, such as: “I put up with that for too long at home. Not any more.”

Secondly, situational factors can be manipulated to force our character into a predicament that is unfamiliar, where their skills and judgment are less tested, and surprise the reader with an unexpected outcome. A weak character might choose to fight, while a braver one might appear to submit to the inevitable. In Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant cannibalistic killer offers to help Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who of course is not as fragile as her name suggests. Hannibal has a number of motivations for helping Clarice solve the Buffalo Bill case, including wanting to escape his unpleasant surroundings and to demonstrate his superior intellect. Ultimately, he is drawn to Clarice, and becomes protective of her, showing he still has enough humanity to reciprocate respect she shows to him. Harris uses Lecter’s strength to maintain situational suspense by having him drip feed what he knows to bargain something in return. Clarice was tested in an environment that was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Thirdly, other characters can be used to force our character into behaving in a way that is unexpected. Some characters cause positive responses, others bring out the worst. For example, the serial killer who doesn’t kill a potential victim because she reminds him of his dead sister, or the rude shop assistant that causes a character to lose patience. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, has physical and personal traits that complement a largely formulaic storyline driven by the behavior of other characters. Reacher finds trouble in some small town; punches some local heavies, befriends (or alienates) the local cop, gets into trouble, narrowly avoids romance, and manages to rescue the stakes character while bringing some rough justice to the bad guys (who are usually abusing positions of power). Reacher’s motivations stem from a deep sense of justice and well-founded mistrust of authority. But it is his judgment and contacts with other influential characters from his past that enable him to solve problems others can’t. Although we know the outcome based on the formula, we still wonder how Reacher is going to react in each situation. It’s a formula that sells.

Finally, there is inner conflict. Having the character agonize about what action to take provides further scope to ramp up the tension. Some books have characters considering for a number of pages what action they might take in response to a situation.

What comes first, the motivations or the behavior? Certainly, we don’t have to have the motivations decided at the first draft. But if the motivations are part of the fundamentals of character formulation they may well determine the direction the story takes. My feeling is that more writers develop character motivations in later drafts, for example through flashbacks, timeslip or backstory.

Writers are allowed to cheat, because it makes for a better story.

In real life, Police spend a great deal of time examining possible motives to a crime, based on the rationale that if they understand the motives, they will be better placed to find the perpetrator. Where motives are complex, subtle or unclear, crimes are harder to solve.

Motivations are the playground of the fiction writer. The development of more subtle motivations and corresponding behavior help writers develop suspense and tension. Who has really done it, and why didn’t we see that coming?

Ian Walkley is the author of No Remorse, an action thriller getting great reviews. His website and contact details are at

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