My book group read “Water for Elephants“. The group deemed it a smashing success. Except me. I was the dissenter. I couldn’t put into words why. Not until I was thinking through this post.
This is the post I’ve been dreading because it is so typical. What’s your character’s motivation? I feel like an acting coach. Dig deep now.
In the end, it’s character motivation that drives me to writing.
Spoiler alert…Jacob‘s parents die in “Water for Elephants”, in case you were planning on reading it. Don’t worry. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a plot turn simply to motivate Jacob to run away and join the circus. It’s a “Point A to Point B” motivation. Hence, my problem with the book. His parents deaths stop there. It was a clean death that relieved him from the expectations and trivialities of his life. I actually felt as if the writer called in a cop-out. In fact, she made it far too easy for him. How simple it would be if everything holding us back from exciting lives just vanished.
That’s only the beginning of my problem with “Water for Elephants”. His parents died! Dead, deceased, never to return. And Jacob ran off and joined the circus. His grief and the effects of it lasted… oh, about a chapter. My own father passed away three years ago and I’m still affected by it. Experiences, affect our lives and choices for longer than a chapter. They change our motivations forever. I strive for better, with the thoughts of making my daddy proud in the back of my head. But not our dear Jacob. He just joined the circus and forgot about his previous life. None of his motivations seemed real. At the very least, they were shallow. I won’t even go into the secondary characters of that book.
This is where I get hung up in writing. Shallow is easy. Kill someone off, or whatever it takes to get from Point A to Point B. Throw in some amusing adventures. Deep waters are harder to tread and exhausting. At times, it is an ocean with no shore in sight. Like life, books would be so much easier without all those messy people.
Oh, how I love him. Through his writing, I found the intricacies of human motivation. Gatsby‘s desires, Tom’s justifications. Even Daisy, as shallow as she was, found a particular depth through Fitzgerald’s talent.
Human motivation is messy, entwined with experience, desires, lies, and action.
Take a single man. Broke free from his first disastrous marriage, but on the road to repair with a new girlfriend. Things are looking up. Right? Then what would motivate him to begin an online flirtation with an old acquaintance, down to talks about wishing for her head on the pillow beside him? Setting up coffee dates that he never intended on attending? She’s been lonely too long. Is it a savior complex? The one who always there. One day. He promises. Did he grow up with alcoholism and learned co-dependent behaviors? Does he want to fix her? Was he the dork in school that never got love from the ladies. How wonderful to have two women with passionate desire for him. Just look at him now! What did he think as he left her standing at Barnes and Nobles waiting for his text that never came?
Another man, early 30’s, never married. He’d loved before, twice ending in pain. Then, along comes someone new. Yes, she’s out of his league… but he hopes and tries. He stumbles with the few opportunities she grants him. Makes some big mistakes, perhaps an angry and insulting message of jealously after she dances with a friend. Somehow, she sees past it all and starts to fall. That’s when he tests her. Other women. Ignoring her. Why? Is he afraid of getting hurt? Perhaps, but too simple. I’ve never been fond of making things too simple. Does he see his ex-fiance in her? Is there a touch of hatred for her beauty, tinted by distrust? She has pretty high standards and expectations. Does he fear not being able to meet them? Worried that she’ll leave when she discovers he doesn’t? Are those fears carried over from expectations his mother had as a child, expectations he never quite fulfilled?
Oh, let’s look at the two women. Best friends. When the one is standing at Starbucks, staring at her phone, she sends off a frantic text to her friend, who suggests a book. As the wait grows longer, she sends another. Her friend heard the weather is getting rough. Might have fog. Finally, she gives up and heads home, to which her friend wishes her safe travels. Why would her friend ignore her experience of rejection? No, “I’m sorries” or “That jerk” or “He doesn’t know what he’s missing”, like I talked about here. What motivates her lack of concern or compassion? Is she afraid of being left behind? Last girl standing, or sitting, on the couch with a carton of ice cream and sappy love movies where she’s doomed for the rest of her life? Do her own insecurities influence her motivations?
Throw those characters together and viola! You have a novel of secondary characters. Which leads me to the next point. Motivations of secondary characters are as, if not more, important that the main characters drive. Motivation of the secondary characters directly affects the primary characters decisions. People, nor characters, live in this world alone. Lives consist of motivations clashing against motivations. Unless you live in Ayn Rand‘s novels.
One more layer. Are the characters motivations realized or unrealized? Clear or clouded my a situation? We know that Lisa’s motivation is escape, but are there other motivations that drive her? What drives her friendship with Jurnee, when the two are clearly mismatched friends? Why does she settle in her relationship with Brian? What motivates her mothering behavior toward her mother and hatred for her sister when the two are so much alike?
As deep as my love for F. Scott is (which I believe will be the name of my son, if I should ever have another) he let me down with this quote.
“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives – experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time anyone else has been so caught up and so pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald