Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday and Motivation

I recently posted about the theory I use in my everyday job (the contextual interaction theory), which analyzes motivation, information, and power to understand how people might interact. Many people commented they wanted to see the questions I use in my research.

I'm not sure the questions would be useful for writers, as they involve discussing specifics of a policy implementation... but that being said, I think there are really useful nuggets here that could help writers get to know their characters better, and understand how they interact. 

I should say first that I did not invent this theory, it is the brainchild of Dr. J.T.A. Bressers. I list publications at the bottom of the post if you'd like to explore the theory in detail. 

I also want to note: What I am doing here is not explaining or outlining the theory. 

Instead, I am creating questions that might help build a nuanced picture of motivation, information, and power, based on my own experience applying the theory. 


To better understand a character's motivation, you could ask yourself the following questions. 

I'll use the character name Katniss, just to keep things interesting.

1. How do Katniss' goals compare to the goals of the other characters? 

    Where are they compatible, and where do they come into conflict? How does this impact the story?

     Is it Katniss against the world, or does she have some allies? How strong are these alliances?

2. How does  Katniss personally feel about the core issue in the story?
     Is she just like everyone else, or does she have a unique take on it?

3. Are  Katniss' goals influenced by external factors? 

     For example, is she pushed by external economic pressure? (does this make her act out of character, or solidify the choice she has to make?)

     Ask the same questions about other external factors, like: 
     external social pressure-- what is the influence of friends and school mates on Katniss' motivation

     external political pressure-- this won't apply to every character. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily mean "official politics". In Katniss' case, her personal storyline and struggle took on a political element. By the same token, politics are everywhere (in a high school, a workplace, etc.). Think of "political pressure" in broad terms. 

     family pressure-- what is the push and pull regarding the character's motivation and the goals/motivations of family members in the story. As this is YA, most of them may have been killed off before the story begins! But if there are any left, do include how their motivations may impact that of our Katniss. 

4. How does the character's confidence influence her motivation? 
     Does she have the kind of confidence that pushes her into do or die situations (Katniss: check), or does she have a lack of confidence that keeps her on the sidelines when she's yearning to change things. 

Does this change over the course of the book? Can it be influenced by external or internal forces? Why and how? What kind of major event could enable that large of a personality change?

5. How does the character's motivation impact her attitude toward the other characters? (only slightly different from #1)
     Is she flying solo to get what she wants, or does she need/appreciate the help of trusted friends? Does this change during the book? Does your character who is shut off from the world open herself up to being vulnerable? What brings her to that place? 

So, what kind of questions or character worksheets do you use to get to the bottom of important traits? 

Do you use the Goal, Motivation, Conflict recipe? 

What have you found successful?

On Wednesday... Information

Friday... look for POWER

For further reference:

Bressers, J T.A. (2004). Implementing sustainable development: how to know what
            works, where, when and how. In W. M. Lafferty (Ed.), Governance for
sustainable development: The challenge of adapting form to function (pp. 284-
318). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 
Owens, K. A. (2008). Understanding how actors influence policy implementation: a
comparative study of wetland restorations in New Jersey, Oregon, the Netherlands,
and Finland. Enschede, the Netherlands: Twente University Press. 


  1. These are great questions and ones I think every writer needs to ask their characters.

    This goes further than motivation, but what's helped me most with characterization is a book called "Listography" given to me by a crit partner. It's basically just a journal for you to create lists, a la "List all of the pets you've had." I go through and answer it for various characters, and it really pulls me so much further into them. Helps with motivation, details, everything.

  2. That's a great way of looking at it. I think about those questions as well, although it's a more gradual process that happens almost spontaneously.


  3. These are definitely good questions to ask your MC, thanks for sharing, KO!

  4. Good stuff! Love reading posts like these because I can feel the progress in my story. Sometimes I can answer only a couple questions. This time I easily answered them all. Maybe time to query?

  5. Wow, this was really great. I'm bookmarking this post for when I start brainstorming my next idea.

  6. OMG, this is awesome. I'm so going to use this. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Whoa, this was incredibly helpful! Definitely will be referring to this during my revisions next month. :)

  8. Very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Meredith-- that sounds so cool! I will put Listography on my list!

    Yes Misha- I think of it more organically, too-- not so much an actual worksheet I fill out.

    Thanks Soph! Did you find a new WIP to work on?

    Oooh, Carolyn... that is a good sign!

    Thank you Tracey!

    I appreciate it Alicia!

    Thanks Pam. Revisions! I am envious.

    Anytime, Carrie- hope you can use them if you like!

  10. Great questions! (I'm actually in the middle of threshing out my characters' motivations in my WIP so this post couldn't have come at a better time.) Thanks! :-)

  11. Finally catching up on blogs and this was such an amazing find. It kind of just changed my life (and my WIP)! I'm toward the end of a first draft and have a very wishy-washy character. This was so incredibly helpful! Thank you!

  12. YAY Megan, I'm so glad you could use it. I have been lazy about finishing up with Information and Power-- I will do them the next two Mondays, I think...


YAY for comments! Thanks for adding to the conversation.