My characters have been criticized (with justification) as being too passive. Readers have said that they had a hard time identifying with them — a classic sign that their motivation is not clear enough.
I was mulling over this little problem today in light of my story in progress, currently called Murderer’s Mom. I have a good set of problems for my protagonist (the “murderer’s mom” of the title), but I’m having a hard time getting the events to fall into their structural inevitability. If my plot were a box, it would rattle.
And then I thought, how do you know what anybody really wants? Isn’t it by what they do? The woman who works in the garden all the time wants, perhaps, to see her botannical design come to fruition, or else she wants the experience of the sun and damp and the smell of dirt on her hands. A man who wants to be a writer, writes. A woman who wants to live in an orderly dwelling might keep her house spotlessly clean, or perhaps spend all her time at the office, where she has control over her environment and the tasks that she needs to do. There are more possible manifestations than goals, but everybody wants something, and everybody’s efforts to get it reveal what it is.
But more than that, and here’s what gave me some new insights into my character’s character, everybody who wants something, who makes choices to bring that something about, also shows it by not doing something else. The woman who works in her garden but doesn’t keep her house very clean is saying something about what is and is not important to her. The man who has all the time in the world for his son but none for his daughter is saying something about his relationship with his son and with himself, as well as with his daughter. The man who turns down a well-paying job in order to become a cab driver is saying something about what he considers important and what he doesn’t.
So here’s my resolution. Every character worksheet (I have a dozen of them, and they are continually morphing) should have a line on it about what the character doesn’t do and why.