For this installment of "What's the Motive?" suspense author Chris Patchell argues that motivation isn't enough when it comes to developing a sympathetic but compelling character. She's developed a formula to illustrate her writing approach.
People are fascinating puzzles to solve. Why do people do the things they do? What motivates them? A dash of this, and you have a local hero. A dash of that, and you have a serial killer. The darker side of human nature has always sparked my curiosity, and maybe that’s why I write suspense.
Understanding a person’s motivations is a huge part of figuring out who they are. Having spent the majority of my professional life managing teams, I was always amazed to find that some of my top performers were driven by fear—the fear of rejection, the fear of failure. Fear can be a healthy motivator—it can compel us to be more prepared and work harder toward our goals, but fear can also inhibit or prevent us from getting what we want in life.
As an author, I’ve never liked my heroes bright and shiny, so in my latest suspense novel, In the Dark, I created an unlikely hero in Marissa Rooney. A single mother of two teenage girls with three failed marriages behind her, Marissa has a checkered past filled with menial jobs that allowed her just enough money to scrape by. When her daughter goes missing, Marissa’s motivation is clear. As parents, we’re instinctively hard-wired to want to protect our kids.
In crafting Marissa, though, I dug deeper into her character to expose not just her motivations, but her past experiences, her fears, and how they factored into her behavior. Motivation on its own is not enough. Two people may want the same thing, but they may go about getting it in very different ways. Let’s say two people want a new car. It’s expensive, and neither of these folks have the money. One person works hard and saves enough for a down payment while another person steals the car. Why?
Motivation + Experiences = Expected Behavior
Past experiences are the secret sauce in defining behavior. Some people have been taught that through hard work they can achieve their goals. Some people are taught to find short cuts. Others quit because their past failures have taught them that they can’t win. Some people don’t try at all.
As many of us do, Marissa equates the events of her life with who she is. Her past failures have instilled her with a whole host of fears. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough, smart enough, that all of her relationships are doomed. But most of all, she’s afraid that she will lose the only two good things she has in her life. Her daughters.
These fears drive Marissa throughout the story and cause her to make some interesting, and in some cases, awful choices. But the need to find her daughter is so powerful, it imbues her with an iron-clad will and the ability to withstand an enormous amount of pain in overcoming hellish obstacles to get what she wants.
In the end, Marissa finds what many of us find in our own lives when we face difficult, sometimes crippling circumstances: that she is stronger than she ever believed.
If motivation is the engine that drives your characters through the heart of your story, crafting a set of powerful formative experiences is the chassis that sets the reader up for a deliciously bumpy ride.
Review In the Dark on Amazon.
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award-winning novel Deadly Lies. A tech worker by day and a writer by night, she pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.