Coaxing Your Story Forward through Character and Motivation

It’s Monday morning and chances are good that, for each of you who got plenty accomplished over the weekend on your current writing project, there is another writer who is feeling a bit frustrated with their lack of progress. Call it writers’ block, call it a stumbling block, call it a failure to plan ahead–whatever the reason, most writers find themselves facing this sort of slow down at some point or other. The question is, what to do about it?

There are many ways of jump starting your WIP again, but today I’m looking at character and motivation. Sometimes your issues are as simple as losing track of who your character is and what drives them forward. Go back to your protagonist and really think about what makes them tick. Who are they? What are their motivations? What do you know about them that doesn’t necessarily affect your plot but still somehow informs your character’s state of being?

For example: Your protagonist is afraid of heights. You know this. But what does it mean? If it doesn’t play into the action itself, it still might have helped determine other things about that character. Perhaps they live in a rural area because buildings tend to be shorter–no high rises or skyscrapers to contend with; maybe they refuse to fly when they travel. The fear helps sculpt the person, and can provide new insights that might ultimately transform your storyline. If you need that character to leave town to attend a funeral, how will they get there? Train? Road trip? Can they make it in time? What if they’re a law enforcement officer called to investigate the death of someone who jumped off a bridge? Do they need to stand on the bridge themselves and look down into the water? Can they hand that duty off to someone else? How will that affect their job, or their reputation?

If you’re having difficulties deciding what your character will do next, look at how you’ve developed their personality and their back story. Then pose a series of “what if” questions. What would your protagonist do if X, Y, or Z happened? How would they react? Make sure the questions you pose are relevant to your overall plot. Base your answers on careful thought about the character you’ve created, by looking at the foundation you laid at the beginning of your story, when you were just getting to know this character.

Motivation as it affects the story is just as important as motivation that fleshes out the character. Consider your character’s initial goal, the driving force that carries them through the entire book. Are they looking to avenge the death of a loved one? To find true love? To marry well? Is there a quest involved, to rescue someone or find the treasure? Are their motivations politically driven? To save the kingdom, take down the dictator, end a war? Now look at the last scene you wrote, the one immediately prior to your hitting your block, and ask yourself if it’s advancing your character toward their primary goal, or, conversely, if it’s presenting an obstacle for them to overcome. It needs to do one or the other. Each scene, in whatever small way, should either move your character forward, or issue a set back. If it does neither, you may be off track, and that’s contributing to your inability to move forward. Find the place you last addressed your character’s primary goal and see if you can get your story moving in the right direction. Let that primary motivation determine the path they take.

Again, there are many stumbling blocks that can halt your writing progress. These are just a few ideas to help you get moving once more. Good luck, and happy writing!