Arriving Before the Bell

I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation. What makes us do whatever it is we do. Primarily because I’m trying to figure out how to write truly realistic, dynamic characters, but the question also applies to me, every day, and to everyone else I encounter.

I get up in the morning, and I’m not much of a morning person, and I do it because my kids have to be at school, hopefully on time. Well, and because it would be frowned upon for a grown-up woman to live in her bed. Even though that’s what I would really like to do most days. You can eat there, as long as you’re very careful not to get the crumbs between the sheets, right?

But that’s in my nature. I really dislike getting up in the morning. I always have. My dad will attest that I was never fun to wake up in the morning to get ready for school, even when I was a child. But what else motivates me? The bell at the school that goes off at 8:04 every morning, whether or not we’re on time, and the fact that the teachers are going to mark down that my kids came in late. The fact that if I don’t get up in the morning and get around, then my housework isn’t going to get done. The fact that if I laid in bed and snacked all day, my health would suffer.

But, as I’m pulling apart my characters, trying to figure out what it is they really want, and why they are doing this or that, I’m realizing that it’s not just because that’s the way they are. It’s not because they’re expected to do something. Or not do something. It’s not necessarily because it’s selfishly what they want more than anything in the world. It’s not entirely because they were brought up to believe, think, act or not act in any specific way.

People are infinitely complex. We do things for any combination of reasons, our own, ones others thrust upon us, and sometimes because that’s just what ended up happening that day, in that particular circumstance. And I’m finding that when I try to simplify my characters, to get down to what that one thing that drives them, I’m flattening my story. My villain isn’t entirely bad. My hero isn’t innately good. None of us are just one thing. We do things for good reasons. (Yes, it is good to get my children to school on time.) And sometimes the reasons aren’t good or bad. Maybe the reason is both. We have to be the complicated mess we really are, and I have to let my characters be just as messy.

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