“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it--namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The irony and humor of Mark Twain’s passage aside--a world where people covet what they don’t have, and can't easily get, is not hollow?--this passage spotlights a necessary ingredient for character study: motivation.
In her recent article, “We have ways of MAKING YOU TALK” (The Writer, January 2008), Lois J. Peterson says that what a character really wants, his motivation, is “… a plot element as much as a characterization one … If he is pursuing something as specific as a new watch, a job or a trophy, identify the bigger need it represents.”
For example: Once hurt over a snide remark on his intelligence, little George seeks identification and importance. In order to achieve this, he works hard and pushes through college, becoming a lawyer, only to find that the law degree lands him in a firm where he spends the first year writing legal briefs and wading through countless hours of spell checking and the onerous task of searching for the correct placement of every comma and period. His name is not on the company letterhead. His office is a cubicle. Most of the partners don’t even know he exists. He looks for the right car, the perfect house, the snazzy suits, material things that symbolize his intangible goals. Even with all of the possessions, though, he still can’t find the respect of peers who are only interested in themselves. Identification and importance, he discovers, can’t be bought; they are not for sale. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. George will spend his whole life searching for the next thing that will hopefully give him what he truly wants.
Truth be told, there are probably several motivators in our lives, some of which may lie on opposite sides of the fence. A man wants to be seen as a man. Hunting symbolizes that need. But his wife is adamant that she doesn’t want any guns in the house. Think of the children. Growing up with a need to please others, a sad bi-product of intolerant parents, he suppresses his need in order to make peace in the house, which in turn leads to a frustrated life--especially when he listens to a co-worker’s hunting stories, and then wonders why he can’t have the best of both worlds.
We are all striving for something in our lives, and the characters in a novel, or short story, can’t do anything less. One dimensional characters are boring. The reader can’t relate to who they are or what they want. As such, a writer needs to think long and hard about what her character wants. Where did the need start? Why is it so important? To what lengths will the character go to attain the goal? These are questions that must be asked and answered, and then played out over the course of the story. The reader demands it. The story demands it. After all, they have needs too.