A few weeks ago, the associate rector of our church delivered a sermon sparked by the question, "What do you want?" Beyond and beneath the superficial needs and wishes, what do you REALLY want out of life? As a recurring motif in the talk, she repeated several times, "Go deeper." The admonition to "go deeper" applies to writing, too.
In the January 2020 RWR (the magazine of the Romance Writers of America), Shirley Jump's regular column "Your Writing Coach" dealt with the topic, "Creating deeper motivation: The rule of six." What does your protagonist want and why? We have more than one motivation for almost everything we do, and in creating a believable protagonist, the writer should delve deeper. Jump recommends digging down for six layers of motivation, hence the title of the article. By the time the writer gets to number six, she says, the process should become hard. She also notes that the character's true, deepest motivation is not the one he or she recognizes on the surface. The first motivations that come to mind are likely to be external factors, while the last layers uncovered tend to be "the deeper internal motivations." One of her examples imagines a character who wants to save her grandmother's farm because that's the wellspring of her happy childhood memories. The deeper motivation not recognized by the character herself, however, is that the farm serves as her "security blanket" because she doesn't want to leave her familiar community.
Jump demonstrates the technique by analyzing the character of Shrek from the first movie in his series. First, he wants to get the intruders out of his swamp. To accomplish that purpose, he has to confront Lord Farquaad. Shrek is angry and "helpless to fix this himself." He's angry because he wants his sanctuary (the swamp) back. The root cause of this desire, according to Jump, is that he withdraws from other people and creatures to avoid pain (as demonstrated by his preemptive rejection of Donkey). She refers to "layering in" the characters' deeper feelings and motivations and also recommends making sure each scene conveys some aspect of those motivations.
Her "saving the farm" example brings to mind GONE WITH THE WIND. In the beginning, teenage Scarlett thinks she'll attain complete happiness if she marries Ashley. She barely hears her Irish father's passionate speech about the importance of land, the only thing that lasts. Her obsession with Ashley lingers until the very end, when she wakes up to the realization that her alleged love for him has been only a girlish fantasy all along. Meanwhile, though, a newly discovered motivation dominates her actual behavior and decisions—saving Tara. All her major choices (except marrying Rhett, and she admits she does even that partly for the money), such as tricking Frank into marriage and becoming a hardheaded businesswoman, are motivated by the need to support Tara and her family. The deeper motivation for that need is the role of Tara as a symbol of stability and material security. The deepest motivation breaks out in the iconic mid-point scene when she fiercely vows, "I'll never be hungry again."
The "layering" image strongly resonates with me, because that's how I tend to revise my fiction. Many writing experts advise that proper revision consists of cutting, that later drafts should be shorter than the first draft because rewriting should trim extraneous material. Well, not my revisions; my second drafts are almost always longer than the first. That's because I start with dialogue, action, and necessary description and exposition. The emotional, sensory, and to some extent descriptive elements of scenes are always on the "thin" side the first time around. I need to expand and enhance those elements to make scenes and characters come to life. Sure, I often cut on the micro level, since my sentences are often unnecessarily convoluted or wordy (maybe a side effect of having produced so much academic nonfiction over the years). On the macro level, though, the total word count nevertheless increases more often than it decreases. In my current WIP, the heroine faces the certainty of losing her job in six months because the business (an independent bookstore) is going to close. Therefore, it becomes vital, not just a pleasant prospect, to sell the graphic novel series she and the hero have created to a major publisher, so she'll have a financial cushion. Digging to the next layer down, getting that cushion is important to her not only for practical reasons but for emotional ones. Because her father's gambling addiction almost destroyed her parents' marriage in her teens and young adult years, she's obsessed with financial security. Her unhappy memories of those years also make it hard for her to trust the hero and lead her to leap to negative assumptions whenever it seems he might let her down. Those don't quite add up to six motivations, but the general idea is the same.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt