People have long recognized the eye-of-the-beholder effect with regard to beauty, to the point that it’s a cliché. We’ve all heard jokes that leave us cold—but leave others doubled over with laughter—or vice versa. Writers are well aware that what’s publishable depends more on the evaluation of the editor/agent/publisher than the inherent qualities of the work.
So, apply that same awareness to motivation. We cannot know motivation directly. We can see what a person does, hear what a person says. These are two of the most common, most powerful sources of information.
Sometimes we have other sensory information, meaning touch, taste, or smell. Sometimes the information accumulates over time, perhaps years, and we feel we truly know someone.
But the bottom line is that we cannot know another from the inside. And that means room for interpretation. How we evaluate a specific behavior (physical or verbal) depends almost exclusively on why we think the person did it.
Writing Prompt: Characters’ Motivations
So writers, here’s your challenge. For each of the actions listed below, come up with three possible motives for the actor: one evil, one altruistic, and one self-interested. I know you can do it.
- giving away a million dollars
- shooting someone
- cutting off a hand or foot
- kissing someone of the same sex
- kissing someone of the other sex
- dancing naked in a public place
- getting a large, readily visible tattoo
- cooking an elaborate meal
- killing an ill person
- cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
- digging up a daffodil bed
- cheating at cards
- adopting a foster child
- running for president
- burning down a church
- adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
- complimenting another’s performance
- rewriting a will
- keeping a dead body unburied for six months
- hiking in the woods
The list could go on and on. In your writing, know your characters’ motives, as well as what other characters think the motives are. How will you reveal all that to your reader? Give sensory info!