What motivates your characters?

17 Jan
Click on the book cover to go to

Click on the book cover to go to

A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins.

–           EL Doctorow

Why do your fiction characters do what they do? Are they acting/reacting in character or way out of character? How do you “make” your characters behave?

First of all, you only have some control over your characters. As you are writing, often a character will “take over” and “decide” just what they are going to do. Fine, but you still need to make sure they aren’t acting outside of who they are. Or that you, as the author, aren’t manipulating what they are doing, especially having them do something just to move your story along or worse, just to write something.

Let me give an example.

Take Dana, the PI In “Gone Missing” and “Saving Grace,” two of the four linked short stories in my short story collection, Beyond the Tripping Point. Dana is also the mother of a seven-year old boy. So her dual role must factor in what her character thinks and does. Add to that the fact that her son is psychologically mute because of something that happened to him in the prequel novel (more on that shortly) and my work was cut out for me. In a critique of “Gone Missing” a few years back, I was chastised for not making Dana more professional. But with her problems with David, she wouldn’t be operating as a PI only – all professionalism –unless she is a “bad” mother – finds her son an impediment to her life, etc. Dana is not that and is always torn between her two roles, something readers can identify with in real life. So I have her wrestling with David and helping him as well as trying to solve the missing persons’ cases in those two stories. In “Saving Grace” she has a bit of a meltdown at one point chastising herself for being a bad mother. And to add insult to injury, another character Great Aunt Doris, who is a traditionalist where mothers are concerned, calls her a bad mother.

What is a mother/PI to do? Be human. Act in character.

In the prequel novel which I am rewriting for my publisher to look at, the actual occurrence which causes David’s muteness and all its implications has Dana roller-coasting a lot more than in the short stories. She does some stupid things, briefly goes into a catatonic state and sometimes gets more aggressive than usual. But – and it’s a large “but” all this change, all these actions and reactions come from her basic character and who she is. I don’t pull them out of the air. She is acting in character and characters have to deal with hurdles and change. So do people in real life and maybe that is a bottom line.

Make your characters real. What motivates them? Are they acting in character even when they don’t seem to be?

And go to my publisher’s page for a link to my interview with Hugh Reilly on where I talk about some of these characters and where they and the plots originated. Eventually I’ll get that video up in the main part of this blog.. For now go to and click on the link at the bottom of my bio.


Sharon A. Crawford


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “What motivates your characters?

  1. Pearson Sharp

    January 17, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    interesting read. Characters certainly do take on a life of their own, though I’m still struggling with letting my characters be “who they are”, rather than “who I want them to be”. Spontaneity is a huge part of this, and yeah, like you said, human flaws and struggles really help to make someone “real” and relatable.

  2. Sharon A. Crawford

    January 29, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Pearson, belated reply to your comment. It is a fine line from letting your characters be who they are rather than who you want them to be. Sometimes, asking yourself the question “Is this action/dialogue something that my character would do?” For example (and this is very basic) would my upper class British character with NOxford University degree suddenly start using “ain’t?” There could be some reasons why “yes” – if the character is for some reason impersonating someone not educated – undercover spy, cop or?

    My problem now is too chatty main characters – those fraternal twins and I have to cut as my novel is too long.

    Happy writing.


    Sharon A.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: