As I’m celebrating the completion of my third manuscript (with many edits to come), it makes me reflect on how much I’ve learned since I started writing in 2008. Including some things I’d wish I’d known sooner.

Probably one of the most important aspects of craft that I never considered in the first blazing hours getting my words onto paper was the actual purpose behind those words, and whether they were strung together in a way that made sense. My uncle, a great artist and writer in his own right, was the first to point this out when he critiqued a short story I’d written about angels. They read like carbon-copy characters to him, because the purpose of their circumstances was unclear. One character, Seamus, was left in the alley in a bunch of garbage, giggling incessantly, oblivious to his former angel stature. And while this may or may not have been amusing to a reader, it ultimately fell flat because Seamus was a mere victim of his circumstances, and nothing more. There was no intent, no path for him. No way out. And it was because I was seeing the story from a line-by-line point-of-view rather than considering the overarching plot, that I missed his overall payoff.

The next iteration of this lesson came when a published writer spoke to me about the importance of character motivation. I found out: what your character wants has to be crystal clear, right from the beginning of the story. It was then that I began to look at my first novel, and insert whys instead of hows: Why (not how) does she go to this world, and what does she want from it? Why (not how) does she interact with this other character? And, most importantly: Why (and how) does all this relate to her overall motivation to be free?

You know what makes your character unique. But without a clear motivation, even in a scene by scene basis (what does she want in this scene and why?), it is very difficult to convey a character’s purpose to a reader. And without a clear purpose, a character becomes infinitely less memorable.

This really crystallized for me when I saw the movie Wreck-It-Ralph. Pixar really knows how to do storytelling well. For proof, here’s their 22 rules of storytelling. From the trailer, it’s obvious what Ralph’s motivation is–he wants to be the good guy for once, and win a medal. But as the plot develops (spoiler alert), he realizes his initial motivation has become empty, because he didn’t receive the payoff he expected.

This also demonstrates how a story can be enhanced when the character’s motivation changes. And when a new motivation outweighs the old one, the character demonstrates growth.

This featurette goes into a bit more depth:

So as I finished this third manuscript (Book Two of the series I’m querying), I really tried to make the motivations clear. Why my villain has created the world she has, and for what purpose. And why it’s so important to my protagonist that the captured people in this world are saved. And what the main purpose of all that is.

So when you write, try not to get too caught up in the line-by-line view (ooh, I like what this character’s doing, it’s so darned amusing!). Go further. Ask yourself what purpose the character has, and what might be the purpose behind the conflicts they face with others, or the circumstances they find themselves in. That will help your character grow and change, which will help your story develop into what you intended it to be.

Question to all: What are some important lessons you’ve learned since you began writing?

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