At some point in a story a character will realise that he’s got to do what he’s got to do. There’s no turning back.
This can happen at any time. On the first page, just before the climax, or anywhere in between—it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense within the story. The important thing is for the reader to see this moment so they understand how the character feels and why.
It isn’t enough to just assume the character’s reasons will be taken for granted or accepted without question.
A cop doing his job, a girl wanting to get married, a soldier following orders—these things may seem self-explanatory but when motivations are too broad they apply to such a large number of people that they become effectively meaningless.
So here are three approaches to separating a character from the crowd, and pitfalls to avoid.
If you can demonstrate that a character is emotionally invested in achieving their goal then readers will accept even the unlikeliest of events.
If a doctor is searching for a cure to a disease that’s killing babies, then it’s not hard to understand the motivation. If she’s searching for a cure to a disease killing her own baby, then it shifts to a whole other level.
If the Secret Service agent called in to find the President’s kidnapped daughter also happens to be her ex-husband, you may roll your eyes and consider it highly unlikely, but you won’t question why he disobeys orders and takes on the terrorists single-handed.
The cheese factor is something you will have to gauge for yourself. It’s possible to create subtle or realistic emotional attachments for your characters, of course, but my point is any level of personal involvement is better than none.
Bait and switch
A more complex strategy is to give the character a perfectly reasonable motivation for what they’re doing and then reveal the actual reason as the story develops.
The character thinks he’s going to assassinate Hitler to help the war effort, but it turns out he wants revenge for his brother’s death in a POW camp.
This reveal can be as much of a surprise to the character as to the reader, in fact it often works best that way, but it’s also important to put some doubt into the narrative.
If the reader buys the original reason wholesale they might easily assume the story is going to be simplistic and obvious. They don’t know what you have planned. You can get round this by planting seeds of doubt either through the character questioning his own motivations or getting a secondary question to raise those questions.
The key part of this approach is to make sure the reader is present for the switch. The process of change is what readers want to see.
This one’s a bit of a trick. If you establish a character as definitely not being the type to give a damn or who wants no part in any adventure, then readers will automatically assume they’re going to see a reversal.
A girl with no interest in love, a lawyer who doesn’t care about his clients, an ex-con determined to go straight—you just know they’re going to get dragged into something that will force them to re-evaluate their goals.
It’s very easy to resort to clichés (as you can see from the examples I just used) but any kind of determination to not get involved is fun to see get turned around. And it has a built in narrative device: when you convince the character they can’t carry on the way they would like you automatically convince the reader of the same thing.
In all three of the above methods the impact is greatest when you show realisation emerge. In that instant when the character grasps why they have to do it the reader will find it much easier to get on board, and at the same time form empathy for the character.
That said, it’s perfectly possible to establish the character’s motivations without showing how they arrived there. You could have your jaded female lead tell her best friend she’s decided to catch herself a millionaire husband and list the reasons why. Not very elegant but there are many bestsellers that start out that blunt and direct.
The thing about emotional connections are that they don’t have to be subtle or original. That’s why corny adverts can still bring a tear to your eye.
A cop who’s on his last day before retirement and doesn’t want any problems gets handed the murder of a young girl who turns out to be the daughter of an old army buddy. He hunts down the killer but slowly realises it’s his fractured relationship with his own wayward teenage daughter that he’s really concerned about.
In the above example I used all three of my suggested approaches and in the most clichéd ways possible. If you haven’t seen that story before then quite frankly you aren’t watching enough direct to DVD movies. And yet it makes no difference. You may not be interested in his story, but you will not question his motives.
I can’t tell you why your character does what he does, but my point is that as long as you’re aware that certain elements have a significant effect on the reader you can make the most of them.
Once you identify the moment of realisation for your character, making it happen in the story, showing its trigger and the changes it affects in the main character will all greatly enhance the reader’s understanding of the character.
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