Monday, November 20, 2006

Jurassic Passions: A Look at Character and Motivation

A dinosaur came into my online classroom a while back, courtesy of one of my students, Celia. Now, let me make clear right up front that I was teaching "Investigative Methodology For Writers" online, so that at best, the dinosaur was an E-mail-osaurus Rex.

But he was a useful bugger and I'm glad Celia brought him in. I'll tell you why.

He was a motivated dinosaur. I named him Celia's Jurassic Passion.

The class was discussing 'motives' and the dinosaur was an example Celia used to illustrate a fictional character's hobby: "A passion so intense that his thinking is temporarily turned off."

Passion. Habit. Achilles' Heel. Motive. In this particular example, this character is tricked into revealing his true identity because of his fascination with dinosaurs. He couldn't stay away from a specific exhibit. This one last shred of his real self gives him away.

Fiction, you say?

Naw. Really happens.

One of the interesting things about a character, or a person's, motivations is that it's often a key issue both in fiction writing and investigative work. It's life imitating art, and art imitating life.

In the case of Celia's Jurassic Passion, we have a unique flavor of motive that works well for a PI and damned beautifully for a writer. It's that one unattainable goal that drives a writer's protagonist or antagonist. That hones a conflict line. That keeps a reader turning page.

For the PI, it's the road sign saying: He Went Thataway.

In any really good PI work, a PI has to climb deeply into the psyche of subject of the investigation. She has to do more than find out the facts. She has to understand what motivated the subject to lie, to steal, to philander, to connive, to run. She has to know what drives him, and what drives him is called motivation.

And it has to be something strong enough, deep enough, to make him go against the norm. To take the risk. To take it all with him or, conversely, leave it all behind.

In an effort not to violate the dictums of "believable characters", many writers seem to choose mundane motivations. One hundred per cent plausible, believable motivations. A drunk driver mows down Alphonse's granny in the middle of Main Street, so Alphonse goes on a rampage against all drunk drivers.

But after ten-plus years as a private investigator, I can tell you that it's not the logic or the believability of the motive that is the crux, but the intensity. I have seen people take actions for some remarkably stupid reasons, in my estimation.

But to them, those reasons were everything. Their own Jurassic Passion.

Intensity is what fuels the motive. Because the motives are, for the most part, as instinctual and primal as, well, a dinosaur, living deep in the very beginnings of our psyche. And often just a beastly.

Many writers develop only lofty, altruistic and logical motives for their characters in the belief that the noble goal is universally understood. In my humble estimation, those writers are missing out on one of the most fascinating elements of the human psyche. Our ability to defy reason, ignore logic, damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead because we are so blindsided by our passions we can see no other way of responding.

Give me Grieving Alphonse who isn't raging against drunk drivers but against television weather reporters. For it was the TV weather report that made Granny leave her humble home that day and cross the street to buy an umbrella. The drunk driver is simply, in Alphonse's primally passionate mind, a bit player.

As a reader, a passionately illogical motive gives me the better hook, the better twist, the bigger surprise factor when all is finally revealed on the last page.

It also, whether I like it or not, draws me into a shared identity with the character. We all have our Jurassic Passions buried somewhere inside. And motives stem from our passions. The one thing we cannot live with. The one thing we cannot live without.

As an investigator, I sought out motives as my pinpoint flashlight on a roadmap through the winding, bumpy terrain of misinformation. As a writer, you can develop a character's motives and passions as a pinpoint flashlight to zig and zag your reader over a similar emotional terrain.

It's been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It's only fitting, then, that the guy driving the bus to hell is none other than E-mail-osaurus Rex, your friendly and illogical Jurassic Passion.



  1. Okay, so when my Crunchy Critters tell me they can't decide whether they want to beat the crap out of the antagonist or rip his pants off, that's a good thing?

  2. Anonymous6:50 PM EST

    Wow Linnea, great tag!

    "Jurassic Passion" ...

    and it explains so much about character motivation that I was missing, too! Thanks for illuminating another dark corner of the human psyche ~

  3. Yeah, Kimber, it can be a good thing if properly written (but isn't that true of all things?) ;-) There's the old writing saw that the first two or three things YOU (writer) think of are often the same things the reader thinks of. So surprise them and think outside and beyond the box. ~Linnea

  4. ::Thanks for illuminating another dark corner of the human psyche ~
    Lynne ::

    As long as you all don't start to wonder why I know so much about these dark corners...::wiggles eyebrows:: ~Linnea

  5. (thumbs up) Got it. Thanks!