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Motivate Your Characters Like a Pro

In his session “The Psychology of Character Motivation,” Edgar-nominated author D.P. Lyle, MD, shared this invaluable exercise for developing your characters’ motivations as your story unfolds. by Jessica Strawser, reporting from ThrillerFest 2010 (New York City)

Edgar-nominated author D.P. Lyle, MD, advises that to begin developing a character’s motivation, you should first decide where he or she falls—at the beginning of your story—in each of these key spectrums:

Tough Guy <–> Whiner
Team Guy <–> Rebel
Artist <–> Dreamer
Smarty <–> Dummy
Blooming Rose <–> Wallflower
Grinder <–> Lazy Dog
Goody <–> Baddy
Believer <–> Doubter

Now, look ahead to where you plan for your story to end. Where will your character fall on all of the above spectrums, once the story arc has come to its close? Motivated characters all have one thing in common: They change. Use the above spectrums as a barometer to measure that change—and by the end of the story, the character should fall at the opposite end of most or even all of the above ranges.

Lyle illustrates this with his example of what he calls “the perfect thriller:” The Terminator. “It hits on every note in the right order perfectly, from beginning to end,” he says. “It is the greatest character arc maybe in the history of the world.”

To see why, perform the above exercise, measuring Sarah Connor’s character trajectory on all of the above spectrums. Through the course of Terminator, our protagonist changes from a whiner to a tough guy, from a team player to a rebel, from a dreamer to an artist, from a dummy to a smarty, from a wildflower to a blooming rose, a lazy dog to a grinder, a goody to a baddy (in a manner of speaking) and her belief system is shaken.

Now, try it with your own characters in your work-in-progress. How can their motivations be stronger?

Afraid your character's motivation isn't strong enough?
Strengthen it with:

Elements Of Writing Fiction: Conflict, Action & Suspense

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