Guest post by Erinne Sevigny Adachi.
I’ve evaluated countless manuscripts over the years for writers who were ready for a professional, non-family/friend opinion on their work. The advice provided within those evaluations has fallen all over the map from talk of consistent characters, to reworking plots, to cleaning up and condensing text. But if there was a single piece of advice that stands out as one that any writer of fiction could benefit from, it is this:
Keep your reader engaged by ensuring character motivations are believable and align with their background, the plot, and the world you’ve created.
When I talk about motivation, I am talking about the WHY. The REASONS. When your character chooses to act (or not act) a certain way, why are they doing (or not doing) so? Does the reason make sense to your story? Could they believably get away with these choices amidst the setting of your book?
Believability is, as most things are, subjective. But remember: the fact that you are writing fiction is not trump card.
Take a character in a contemporary fiction piece (we’ll call her Andrea) who decides to volunteer at a youth shelter. There she meets a girl who inevitably brings Andrea into a drama that involves a dangerous drug dealer and maybe a teen pregnancy. Sounds like it could be interesting, but let’s examine all the motivations at play here. What is the motivation for the youth shelter to hire Andrea as a volunteer? If it doesn’t make sense for Andrea to be working there, then the whole story is built on a shaky foundation. What is the young girl’s motivation for bringing Andrea into her drama? Andrea needs to provide something to the situation that the youth shelter cannot.
Your aim in ensuring believable motivations is to take away any chance of the reader discrediting you and your book by saying: “That doesn’t make sense.”
Okay, so now what about Andrea’s motivation? Why will she allow herself to be pulled into the potentially dangerous drama? In this case “out of the goodness of her own heart” could work, but if her life ends up in danger, there better be a much stronger reason for her getting involved personally instead of referring the case to the police. Maybe the drug-dealer is a family member she is also trying to protect?
Considering the motivations of all the characters in your book is especially helpful at the outlining stage (and don’t even get me started if you’re not outlining your book).
Bottom line is that eventually “out of the goodness of her own heart” and other “soft” motivations, while perhaps functional as far as filling a void goes, can quickly become a superficial reason for a story to continue. And if believability is superficial, the reader won’t buy-in to your character’s motivations, nor will they be engaged in your book.
Erinne Sevigny Adachi is a freelance editor and publishing consultant. Her business, Blue Pencil Consult, provides manuscript evaluations to writers. For your own manuscript evaluation, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.