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Tracking Character Motivations with a Free Spreadsheet

1 Feb

It’s no secret that I’m currently revising a manuscript. I’ve been talking about revising a lot lately and giving glimpses into what my revision process looks like. I’m currently on my third draft of a multi-POV sci-fi novel, and I am still smoothing out my character motivations. (What can I say? It can be tricky! Especially when you change something in chapter 3 and it causes a domino effect for the next thirty chapters.) In fact, character motivations can get trickier the more you revise. Why? Because you have to remember the exact decision each character made and why in this particular version. Obviously, you might see where lines start to blur. No one expects you to remember every little detail of every manuscript you’ve ever written, but readers do expect consistent, believable characters. And it’s your job as the writer to deliver.

One way I track the motivations of my characters is an Excel spreadsheet. 

If you follow me elsewhere, you might have seen me upload the photo of my Excel spreadsheet, which actually led me to today’s topic. I received a lot of messages asking for more information and tips on motivations, so I thought I would dive deep into this topic today. 

Motivations are important. So. Incredibly. Important. Without motivation, characters will come across as bland and unbelievable, which, quite frankly, makes them hard to follow or care about. There’s a lot to consider when choosing any particular character’s motivation. (Did I mention that ALL of your characters need a driving force? It isn’t just your protagonist, though your protagonist’s will probably matter the most since they are, well, you know, the protagonist.) Mostly, I find there’s a misconception that the bigger the motivation, the more important the story will feel to the reader. But it’s really the opposite. The more personal the motivation, the better. Why? Because the reader is more likely to empathize with personal stakes rather than worldly stakes. Which one do you care about more: A main character who must save the world or a main character who must save their little sister while the world is ending?

Typically, readers are drawn to characters who have personal stakes driving their motivation, even if the overall arc is huge (like saving the world). A great example is Katniss Everdeen. While she is the heroine at the center of a dystopian novel – and saving her country could’ve been the driving force – her true motivation was keeping her little sister safe. Without having a sister to save, Katniss wouldn’t have volunteered. (We know this as fact, because she had been in many lotteries before, and hadn’t volunteered before her sister was chosen.) Without a sister, Katniss wouldn’t be Katniss. Which is why what happens to her sister is so devastating. This sister-led motivation also creates a solid foundation for the reader to see why saving the “world” matters so much. (Why save a world if you don’t care about anyone in it?) Personal motivation will resonant more; therefore, allowing worldly stakes to have a solid platform. So let’s talk about those stakes. 

Your characters’ motivations should be challenged at all times. This is mostly referred to as “raising the stakes”. 

Ex. What does Katniss have to sacrifice in order to save her sister? What does saving her sister do to others around her? How does that affect Katniss’s future decisions? When does it change her decisions and motivation?

In addition to paying attention to your characters’ motivations (and upping those stakes), it’s important that your characters (especially your protagonist), change. At the end of the book, your characters should not be the same people we met on the first page. If they are the exact same person with the same feelings and motivations, then what actually happened in 300 pages? 

By creating a spreadsheet, you are forcing yourself to answer hard questions: “Did my character change in this scene? Did those changes push them forward or hold them back? Did it affect the story at all?” Spoiler alert: you should be answering YES to each of these questions, from chapter one allllll the way to the end.  

Typically, when I start writing a novel, I know where I’m going to begin and end. It rarely changes for me. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever started a book when I didn’t know the ending (or have a really close idea to what my ending would be). Why? Because the beginning tells me who the character started as, whereas the ending tells me where the character ends. The middle is going to be my character arc (herein referred to as the “rainbow”). If I don’t know where that rainbow is going, I will struggle to form all those colors that makes the story colorful, let alone form an ending that’s a believable treasure chest of gold. 

The spreadsheet helps me most out in the middle. I’ve found the middle is a place where a lot of writers struggle. In fact, the place I always get stuck at is about 65%. And when I get stuck, I love to work backward. This is where my motivational spreadsheet becomes super helpful. I can see where I want my characters end and compare it to where I got stuck. Then, I can ask myself, “What has to happen to these characters to get them here?” Once I start brainstorming, I can fill those motivations in. 

A spreadsheet is additionally helpful if you have multiple POVs or characters (ex. if you are struggling to track minor characters or the villain’s motivations), especially if Character A and B know something that Character C has yet to learn. In the end, I track the following: Chapter number/title, Chapter Summary, Character A, Character B, etc. (Typically listed in the order of importance.) I put the POV note in the chapter number. I also sum up what Character C is thinking/doing even if they don’t physically appear in a particular scene. That way, I am forcing each character to have their own presence, even in the “white noise” of their nonexistence in a scene. 

I highly encourage you to try this out if you are struggling with motivation, pushing stakes, and/or filling in that ugly middle. I gravitated toward this method because I’m an INTJ. I thrive with tasks dependent on logic. (Which is also why writing can be so hard sometimes.) Characters, as we all know, aren’t always logical, and yet they need to make logical sense to the reader. This single truth can feel like a huge contradiction to fledgling writers, when it isn’t. Not really. In reality, readers need to understand your character, even in your character’s most illogical moments. They need to believe that your characters illogical moments made sense to your character. Ex. Let’s say Character A loves Character B, and Character B has been kidnapped. Character A has a chance to save them, but only a 2% chance. And if they took that 2% chance, there’s a 98% chance they’ll both die. And yet, there’s no other chances coming their way. Logically, Character A should probably save themselves and hope for another chance. But we’re reading about heros! Character A is going to take that 2% chance, with all odds against them. Your reader should get that. They should feel how emotions have driven their decision-making. 

That’s what a spreadsheet is for. It’s forcing you, the writer, to give us those reasons, and making sure you’ve made those reasons clear in your story. 

Download your free Excel spreadsheet here. 

How do you track your character motivations? 

Also, what else do you want help with? I love to hear from you! In fact, it helps me help you more when I hear from you. I heard a lot from a lot of you all in my latest newsletter. (Whaaaaat? Shannon, you have a newsletter? I do! It releases once a quarter, and I always include more writing tips, sneak peeks at my work, and an exclusive surprise giveaway. Subscribe here.

My blog posts happen the first Saturday of every month, so check back in on Saturday, March 7. 

~SAT

#WW Website Wonders

25 May

Every month, I share all of the websites I come across that I find helpful, humorous, or just awesome. Below, you’ll find all of May’s Website Wonders categorized into Writing, Reading, and Exploring.

If you enjoy these websites, be sure to follow me on Twitter because I share even more websites and photos like this there.

Favorite Article: What is Your Magic Number? by Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson, as many writers know, is a literary agent (Nelson Literary Agency), and she’s a genius. She writes #PubRants and other helpful articles and tidbits to help writers get out there and stay confident. This article is a perfect example of that. It’s short, sweet, and too the point. Nearly everyone writes numerous manuscripts before getting published, and almost no one is an overnight success. I love her honesty and sincerity. Definitely recommended.

Writing:

37 Free Online Writing Courses From Top Universities: For those looking for an awesome place to learn

The Shape of Stories (infographic) Every story you love can be retold with one of eight sentences

21 Pieces of Handwriting So Perfect They Are Borderline Erotic: I have terrible handwriting, so this almost killed me with envy.

How To Write (infographic)

22 of the Best Single Sentences on Writing: Write your heart out.

Love this mug!

Love this mug!

Reading:

7 Books to Make You a Better Critical Thinker

The Top Ten Literary Love Quotes: “Each time you happen to me all over again.” – Edith Wharton

10 Ancient Books That Promise Supernatural Powers: Because why not?

Exploring:

22 Breathtaking Photos of Abandoned Places: I love abandoned places. They are perfect settings for novels (or simply perfect for stirring the imagination).

Mindblowing Photographs of the Last Surviving Tribes on Earth

I’m still posting my usual Saturday post this week, and then, of course, the Ketchup (“catch up”) post on Monday.

After that, see you in June!

~SAT

GoodreadsGiveawaySign up to win a Bad Bloods paperback in this Goodreads GiveawayI mean, who doesn’t want a free paperback? This was also this week’s Teaser Tuesday, but regular ones will continue next week. If you want SIGNED paperbacks, read my news below!

Come see me at the Barnes & Noble for B-Fest in Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, KS on Saturday, June 11 from 1-3 PM for a book signing and author panel. More info on my Events page.

November Rain, Part One, releases July 18, 2016

AmazonBarnes & NobleiBooksKoboSmashwordsGoodreads

November Snow, Part Two, releases July 25, 2016

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