Now that sounds like a dumb question, doesn’t it. Of course your character takes action—that’s what he’s doing in your book in the first place!
But what action, and most importantly, why?
This speaks to the very heart of your novel. It’s raison d’etre. You know, the whole point of your book.
Because the motivation behind your character’s action reveals both his Achilles’ heel, and the Story Question—simultaneously.
You know, that whole interweaving of characters and plot, so that the people drive the plot, and the plot changes the folks.
Everything, literally everything in a novel—every word, sentence, paragraph, scene chapter; every character trait and flaw; every plot point and task—ultimately gets woven into one whole cloth.
Far more often than you’d think, I see a Protagonist going through the motions of a novel, reacting and wanting and fearing and dreaming and failing, perhaps, but with no real concrete reason as to why.
Which leaves a story and its people not grounded to a plot. It portrays a character acting, but with no internal motivation to do so.
When you begin a novel, the main Story Question starts on page one. Even as you’re setting the Protagonist’s “real life,” as it is now, we need hints of what she will face. And, if she’s up to besting the issues and foes.
As this Story Question deepens and broadens, then comes the call to action for the Protagonist. This brings to the fore the question of whether she’ll accept the call, and we first see her refusing to do so.
The reasons she gives for this refusal, often excuses in the beginning, ultimately lead us to her internal demons that have held her back. And all great characters have this shadow side, the personal issues deeply buried, which they may or may not even be aware of.
But as the story progresses, more of this comes to light.
These problems appear as she’s going through the trials and tribulations to learn whatever she must learn, must master, in order to achieve her goal. Here is where she gains allies and foes. Both helpmates and those who hinder teach her things about herself, about why she reacts as she does, about what she still needs to learn in order to reach her goal. Through it all, we get pieces of her deepest demons.
Until a bit past mid-way, the Protagonist has to face whatever that shadowy thing is that’s been holding her back. The going into the in-most cave of the psyche, and standing up to her own internal conflicts.
In all good books, the internal conflicts mirror the external ones. That’s how to keep a story moving, as the external issues bring up the things within her that leave a question as to whether she will succeed.
That lingering question keeps the reader engaged, keeps him wondering whether our hero will save the day, fail, or die trying.
This is what motivates your hero throughout the story. Because by now, she’s so far in, to quit would bring huge repercussions. She has a reason to act, rather than just acting. Something drives her, and by now, she knows what it is.
Your reader does too.
Now, beware here. Yes, we all like to be surprised. We like when an author brings events together in a way we didn’t see coming. That tweaks us. Keeps us reading on.
But, and this is a big but, those surprises have to “fit” what we already know of the character in the first place.
In other words, your cat may grow into a tiger, but it can’t grow into an elephant.
You, as the author, have to have laid the groundwork, carefully sprinkling seeds up until that point so that whatever is holding her back, your readers believe.
Yep, it can be a surprise. But if it’s a shock, you’ve most likely missed the mark.
Take Gone Girl. Filled with twists and turns and surprises. But then, we knew Amy wasn’t terribly stable from the get-go, didn’t we? As the book takes those unexpected twists, we still believe them. They fit what we know of her up to now.
And we believe Amy’s motivation for doing the things she does.
You, as the author, don’t have to know everything about your Protagonist to begin. I never do. But you damn well better know those things about her as you go deeper into the story. You can always fill in that trail of crumbs leading up to that in-most cave in revisions.
The who of her is comprised of the how she reacts, the what she does, and the when she does it. All clues as to that motivation.
So dig deep into her. Find that Achilles Heel. Then bring it out with all the twists and turns you can!