by Janis Patterson
Okay, I’ll confess. I am a Jessica Fletcher junkie, and since our local ‘golden oldies’ station is running episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the afternoon I watch almost every day. In the opening credits of the last few seasons (where Jessica was teaching in New York, and which I consider vastly inferior to the earlier years) there is a flash of her wearing a hideous sweater and standing in front of a blackboard on which is written ‘Motive.’
Motive. That’s a fancy word for ‘why’d he do that?’ And let’s face it, without motive you don’t have a story. Not a good one, at least.
To have an interesting story you have to have conflict; however, this doesn’t necessarily mean people fighting with each other. It means that one character wants one thing and another something else. How a conclusion is reached is the story. Why each character wants whatever he wants is the motive. The action is what he does to ensure he gets what he wants. It’s why he does what he does, and it can encompass the entire human spectrum – from murder to gossip to theft to… whatever you need to tell your story.
Another thing about motive is it has to be believable and understandable – not to us, necessarily, but to the character. We may never think that the ritual slaughter of six blonde soprano co-eds is understandable, but if the killer truly believes that he is creating angels to protect him by killing these girls the act becomes believable – from his point of view. Horrible, but believable, because the perpetrator believes it absolutely. By the same token, if a beauty contest participant believes she can win if she puts India ink in her chief rival’s facial cleanser and she also believes she has to win or she is worth nothing, or if the bad guys will kill her, or her father will disown her, or whatever… as long as she truly believes whatever it is, it is a viable motive.
Motives don’t have to be sane or rational – except to the perpetrator. To them it must be the most natural thing in the world – they want it (whatever it is), so they will do whatever it takes to gain their objective. To the rest of us it could be horrible or amusing or anything else, but the perpetrator must believe it implicitly.
Motive is the generator of your story, and the motives of the characters create the conflict. The crook and the cop. Two women after the same man. Man versus nature. Whatever. Without motives and conflicts, you don’t have much of a story.
For example, take Pete. Pete gets up in the morning, showers, eats breakfast, goes to work, spends the day making actuarial tables, has a drink with friends, then takes his girl out to dinner before going home and going to bed. By now you’ve probably written about 1,000 words describing Pete’s day in erudite and deathless prose, but you haven’t really said anything. You’ve just described the action. Ho-hum. What does Pete want? What stands in the way of Pete’s getting what he wants?
But, you say, that’s the way life is. We don’t all have motives and conflicts, so most of our lives are just day-to-day minutiae. That’s not true. We all have motives – why do we work? So we can have the money to buy what we need. Or we’re saving for a special something. And we all have conflicts – traffic was horrible and kept us from getting to work on time. That jerk in accounting screwed up again, and has made it appear we were wrong. Whatever. Our motives and conflicts may be more mundane and on a smaller scale than our characters’, but they are there. Everyone has them. Fictional characters just have bigger, more spectacular ones, and it is our duty to provide them in a believable manner.
Remember, if all people wanted was real life, they’d all sit on the front porch watching their neighbors instead of reading our books!