When I first started writing, the biggest mistake I made was having my characters do things for no discernable reason. My critique group was fast to jump on this. “Why did Chase go to the office by a different route that day?” They’d ask. “Because he needed to almost run into Alyssa, and that’s where she was,” I’d reply, stunned that they hadn’t noticed this important detail. “If he went his usual way the story couldn’t have kept moving!” Predictably, they cringed and berated me mercilessly and I learned a very important lesson about motivation. Our characters can’t do things for no reason any more than we do. Less so, in fact, because ironically, if we were to write what we saw, much of the time it just wouldn’t be believable. A character’s motivation has to be so clear, so black and white that there is no sense of Deus ex Machina, or author cheating, to the reader. Nothing steams me more when I’m reading what I thought was a good book, than to have a problem solved through a random coincidence, or through a character making such a stretch in a leap of logic it seems like they’re magical (certain treasure hunting books and movies drive me nuts when the hero solves a clue that no human being could possibly solve, no matter how much history they know).
I’ve been pretty lucky, in that I started my career as a behaviorist, analyzing and attempting to change workplace behaviors, and from there I became a life coach and Organizational Development director. This has enabled me to observe a great deal of human behavior and what we often call motivation. Although people will often say they don’t know why they did things, there is always a cause. The task of the writer is to capture those more interesting motivations, turn them up a notch and really have fun with them. In most of my books, the protagonists have been in very high stakes situations – literally life or death for them and others, but it is the smaller motivations that can be more interesting. I take the time before I start to do a grid on each main character and one of the things I make sure I know is what they want most in life and what their greatest fear is (before the conflict I put them in, that is). This helps me develop a consistent way for them to behave so that they don’t just randomly drive to a store they’ve never been to, just because I need them to be there. And thank you, critique group, for drumming that into me so thoroughly!