Prevent Writers Block by Using Writing Style and Character Motivation
There is a lot of discussion among writers regarding writing style. There are those who are “plotters,” those who are “pantsers,” and those who are a hybrid of the two, fondly known as “plantsers”. Writer generally fall into one of these categories though there are those who may switch from one to the other or incorporate aspects of each into their writing process. Regardless of which style that defines your writing process, using character motivation to inform your plot’s direction is crucial for keeping the writing flowing and preventing writer’s block.
Plotters, Pantsers and Plantzers
Plotters are those writer who outline their plot and notate their outline such that they have the entire story laid out before they ever start writing. Pantsers are writers who don’t plan much or anything before writing, in other words they fly by the seat of their pants. Plantsers are those that use both strategies for writing though they tend to fall more heavily on the plot or pants side of things.
While some will say that one or the other style is better it really comes down to what works for you, or more importantly which method keeps you more excited with your writing. You will hear many pantsers say that once they know the entire story they aren’t as interested in it anymore. Pantsers are excited by being surprised by their plot and writing a book that the first time around is as intriguing to them as it is to the reader. These are the people who read books only once and are best served by libraries vs. book shops.
Plotters, on the other hand, often feel that unless they have their plot at least outlined if not notated, they will spend too much time off course struggling for direction. They feel that in the end they will be left with a mess they have to cut apart and rewrite to get it in shape. Plotters are excited by making the plot they’ve already detailed happen and the techniques and components it takes to make it happen. These are the people who love the editing and can get so caught up in editing “just one more time” that it can be hard for them to submit their writing.
Have you ever experienced the surprise at someone you know well suddenly acting completely out of character. Maybe you have a best friend who is very even tempered and always seems understanding all of a sudden yelling at you for no reason you can discern. What is the first question you would ask? Probably something like “What got into her?” meaning “What made her act like that?”
When we know someone we expect them to act in certain ways because we understand them and are familiar with their thoughts and what causes them to feel certain ways. This leads us to assume that when then act differently something else, something we don’t yet understand is behind it. We would likely be uncomfortable if that best friend who lashed out at us never told us what was bothering her.
The same thing is true of characters. Characters must have a reason they behave the ways they do, what they think and what leads them to feel in certain ways. This is a character’s motivation. Whenever writing any type of piece it is critical to always have in mind why the character they writing is doing what you have them do. As part of this you need to consider what the characters goal is. What is their endgame?
A great deal of their motivation can be answered by the simple question “What do they want?” What is it that your character wants more than anything and how have they (you) devised to get it? In order for readers to become intrigued with your story they must feel they know the characters. Much of this speaks to motivation. If you can set the motivation up early later you can reserve a great deal of narrative and replace it with action, since the reader will know why the character is acting in a certain way.
The best way to do this, is before you start writing make sure you minimally know your two main characters inside and out. Create character sketches for them both describing everything from their favorite color necktie or turtleneck to their most hated food. Give them backstory that explains where they come from, how they were raised and what good and bad things happened to them along the way.
Much of this you will not use in your story but when you know your characters inside and out whether you are a pantzer or a plotter you will be able to write your scenes with less struggle. Knowing your characters as well as possible leads you to be able to keep their motivations in mind even without having to focus on them all the time. When a character does something out of character, even if you don’t reveal the reason until later you know why they did it. You will signal this to the reader by just how well you know your characters and the reader will be willing to wait until later for you to tell them. They are able to see the characters motivations and feel they know them so they know what is in character and out of character for them.
One way for you to know your characters inside and out is to use Character Summaries to created everything you need to know about the character. While it may seem like a lot of work when most of it will not go into the story, it is well worth it in being able to write the character smoothly. There are a number of good Character Sheets online. A good one that has a complete rundown or characteristics can be found here. This site also has links to other character questionnaires.
What Goes Into a Character's Motivation?
Several factors go into determining what motivates a character. You can provide a piece of backstory for the reader at the opening of your piece to give an idea of where they come from and what they have experienced up until now. However, most editors today, and readers as well, prefer to have the story begin in the middle of the action. This means you will have to do more showing as to your characters motivations.
Motivations are tied closely to the characters goal. You can create a character with great values and noble ambition or conversely, give them dark values and a malevolent nature but there is no story until these two characters have goals. Goals cannot be abstract, they should be concrete and clear for the reader to understand. This means you first must understand them. What do your protagonist and antagonist want and why? The “why” should be detailed and may not be fully revealed to your reader upfront.
It is not enough to say the protagonist wants world peace because that is the best thing a person could want while the antagonist wants to instigate war because he wants to foil the protagonist. The goals of your characters should be built on one or more of their values. This means that your antagonist’s goals may not even be directly related to the protagonist. The antagonist may have just somehow gotten in the way, perhaps even unknowingly. Of course there must be a reason, or motivation, that leads the protagonist to be the protagonist and the antagonist to be the antagonist. Figure all of this part out and you are halfway to completing your novel, story or screen play.
Character Motivation and Writer’s Block
Regardless of whether you are a pantser or a plotter, you will likely experience writers block at some time. (Anyone who says they haven’t is likely just redefining the term). Pantsers may get stuck on the entire plot. This often takes the form of having a great general concept but absolutely no idea what to do with it. Plotters may have outlined the plot and still not know how to make some part work. Regardless of how general or detailed your approach to pre-writing planning, the bottom line is that if you don’t at least get the motivations of the main characters right, you are likely to get stuck and stuck again. I would recommend focusing on motivation for any other major characters as well, if they have a role in driving the story,
You should also consider the motivations of minor characters. A point to remember about minor characters; Minor characters may seem to be included just to react to the protagonist or antagonist or serve as foils for the main characters. Yet the main characters interact with them in ways that provide impetus for what they do, why they do it and how they do it. This means it can be a major mistake to minimize the importance of the motivations of what may seem to be minor characters in your story. If minor characters have no real role in moving the plot forward through their own actions or by their interactions with the main characters, there's no need for them to be included.
That being said, pantsers can get overwhelmed by worrying about the motivations for characters other than the main two. They also may not know who all their characters are until said characters actually shows up in the story line. In the pantsers writing world, main characters have a bad habit of bringing home friends or obtaining love interests not authorized by the writer and only then can that character be considered in terms of where they fit into the plot.
For both types of writers, even though you may think you have the right motivations determined at the beginning of a new project this may not always be the case (it often isn’t the case for pantsers). You may find along the way that for some reason something doesn’t seem to be working the way you want it to or it just doesn’t make sense based on the motivations you specified. This is the time pantsers celebrate and plotters despair. Pantsers use this opportunity to move, no run, off the beaten path that was fenced in by their preplanning. Plotters feel the painful tug of the need to deviate from, meaning rewrite, part of their plot outline.
Yet each type of writer can take a page from the others book. Plotters can use this as a chance to increase the depth of the story they have in mind in detailed points and the depth of their characters making them feel more realistic. In determining a new motivation or an additional motivation for a character they can use it as a means for the character to grow and change throughout the plot. This makes the character more three dimensional and more interesting to the reader.
Pantsers can use this chance to let their characters tell them what their real motivations are. This will sound odd to those who aren’t pantsers, but pantsers’ characters speak to them or simply hijack the plot in a way the writer had not intended. Obviously the characters aren’t doing so in a real life sense, but pantsers generally write from the unconscious or subconscious which is part of the reason plotting is so difficult for them. They can’t tell you all the details and nuances of their story because it doesn’t exist in their conscious mind as it is fully directed and generated from their unconscious mind.
At the same time when something goes awry based on the motivations of the characters, this is a chance for pantsers to put a bit more structure into planning the direction of their plot. They will need to determine how the new motivation plays into what has already been written (perhaps done at the first edit which is usually just making everything make sense for a pantzer) and how it will direct the scene they are currently writing. This is a great sources of new material for pantsers and a means for plotters to feel more confident and set on their entire story structure
Regardless of your style of writing, whether you tend to just let it happen or you outline and detail every point from beginning to end, there is one thing you absolutely must determine at the outset. This is your characters' motivations. Ideally you should set the motivations for all of your characters as part of a character sketch but if you are the type who may not be introduced to all or you characters until later down the road, then make sure you have the protagonist and antagonist well in hand. In order to do this, you must know your characters background, what they experienced up to the point when your story starts, and their goals and aspirations based on one or more of their values.
The protagonists goal may not be to stay ahead of the antagonist, in fact they may not even be aware the antagonist exists The antagonist’s goal may not just be to thwart the protagonist and even if it is that may be based on a bigger motivation and goal. While learning about your characters you learn about their motivations and goals and in learning about their motivations and goals you learn about the manner in which their character arcs will interact and transact along the way to your end point. When all of this is well known to you prior to beginning to write, one major cause of writer’s block will be conquered before it has a chance to rear its ugly head and interfere with your writing.
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© 2017 Natalie Frank