I once wrote about my husband always asking me why a character does this or that. He can be annoying about it, but it does improve my novel. You can’t have characters do things just because you, the author, want them to. They need to be motivated by their own desires.
“Every character should want something,
even if it only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Why does Johnny get off the couch and go to work even though he would rather be a couch-potato? Johnny is the sole provider for his family.
Why did Jenny rob the store? She needed the money to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments.
Why did Bobby let his little sister tag along with him on his sky-diving adventure? Bobby had no one to watch his sister, so he had no choice but to take her. (Or perhaps he knew she would love the adventure.)
There must be a reason why your character does what he does. Strong character motivation allows readers to understand why characters make the choices they do. This does not mean that you need to explain out right to your reader why something is happening. It does not mean that you need pages of back story to justify every decision.
A few well-chosen details from the past will speak volumes. And you don’t have to give the hints before the action. It can be revealed slowly through action and dialogue. If you carefully choose those elements, then readers will understand why a character can’t enter a hospital room or accept a compliment.
To help strengthen your writing, examine your characters’ traits and then decide what motivated them to develop those behaviors. If you understand your character’s beliefs and behavior, you will be able to find ways to “show” the events that led to these things without “telling” the reader anything.
And be careful that the motivations you give your characters are based on their NEEDS and not yours as an author.
Example: Why does the character go New York City?
Because she needs to do something exciting. (In other words, the author needs her there.)
Because she needs to run into Emily. (Again, the author needs her there.)
Because she needs to find the key. (Again, the author needs her there.)
Because her grandmother is in the hospital.
Because she is escaping the sheriff, and New York is out of his jurisdiction.
Because she is curious about the hero’s past, and he mentioned his family was there.
So as you write, examine your character’s actions and reactions. Why do they do the things they do? Make sure it is consistent with their behaviors and beliefs. And make sure it is really THEIR motivation and not your own as an author.
For even more on giving characters strong, real motivation, check out my post on character motivation from last year.