My protagonist has a really clear goal. Maggie is a young Englishwoman travelling to Nova Scotia in 1881 to find her young brother and sister who've been sent to Canada as part of the Home Children program (a scheme that sent orphans and waifs from England to homes and farms in Canada). She was working abroad as a governess when their mother died, and the children were shipped off to Canada without her knowledge. Sounds like a pretty good premise, doesn't it? Well I thought so, until Lisa Cron arrived and shook my world. Lisa Cron is the author of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel.
If someone had asked me a few months ago about my character's motivation, I would have said that she wants to reunite her family. If they'd asked why, I would have looked at them with a blank expression. Well isn't it obvious? Anyone in that situation would want to find their siblings and reunite their family. The trouble is that I was looking at the external motivation without considering what was going on under the surface. In Story Genius, Cron shows how to dig deeper to find out what your characters are really about. What is the internal struggle going on that's fleshed out in the plot? Do they have misconceptions that drive their behaviour? Who were they the day before your novel began and how is that going to change as the novel progresses? Without that underlying conflict, the story can just become a bunch of things that happen, regardless of how beautifully written it is.
To avoid spoilers, I don't want to say too much more about my novel, except that I've discovered Maggie's main issue is abandonment. Instead, let me use a hypothetical example to show you how 'digging down' might work.
Imagine your protagonist, Miranda, has a dream of becoming the CEO of a large corporation. She starts out as an Administrative Assistant and overcomes a barrage of obstacles to finally reach the top. However, the story won't necessarily engage the reader. Unless we can connect with Miranda in some way, we won't want to go with her on the journey. We won't care if she makes it or not. To build a connection with readers, you need to go deeper into her motivation. Why does she want to get to the top? There are many possible reasons, but let's say she wants to have a job where she can earn a lot of money. Why does she want to earn a lot of money? So she can buy the things she's always wanted (e.g. nice clothes, house, car, travel). But why does she want those things? It's because her family didn't have a lot of money when she was growing up and she often missed out on things like a new dress.
So far, we've discovered some of the reasons that make Miranda tick, but it's still pretty general. Most people would like more money so they can buy things they want. Why does this mean so much to Miranda? Think of a specific event when she couldn't afford something she wanted. How about this? When she was in Grade 10 at school, a boy she liked asked her to the school dance, but she didn't have anything suitable to wear. She couldn't afford to buy a new dress and she didn't want to wear one of her old ones because some of the girls at school had previously made fun of her clothes. So rather than be embarrassed, she turned down the invitation. The boy asked someone else to the dance and she stayed home. So how did that make her feel? She felt like she was a second-class citizen who wasn't as good as the other girls. She felt unloved. What is the incorrect belief that guides her current behaviour? She thinks that if she can rise to the top of the corporation and earn a lot of money, she will finally gain the love and acceptance she craves. However, this is a mistaken belief because money doesn't guarantee love and happiness. The plot then shows Miranda's internal struggle and we see her change over the course of the novel. There's still more drilling down to do, but hopefully you're getting a sense of what is needed. It's the internal struggle that drives the plot and builds connections with readers.
Lisa Cron explains it much better in her book, with lots of examples and practical tips. I highly recommend Story Genius if you want your novel to really connect with readers rather than just being pretty prose that goes nowhere. Now I just have to apply that advice to my own novel!
Could you dig deeper with any of your characters? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Nola Passmore is a writer and editor who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, magazine articles, and true stories. She and her husband Tim own and operate a freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish. You can find her weekly writing tips blog on their website. She is currently penning her ever-changing debut novel, which involves lots of digging down :)