Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Getting the Motives on the Page

I recently read this brilliant blog post by Elizabeth Bear, where she talks about striking the balance between over-explaining and under-explaining.   Summed up nicely in this quote from her post.

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“There’s this tremendous tension for me as a writer between making things too easy and making them too hard. Or not even hard, because that implies some intent to confound–but rather it seems as if the entire course of my self-training has been a see-saw back and forth between obscurity and hand-holding.”

She goes on to say that what makes finding the balance difficult is that not every reader is the same.  What some readers might find obscure others will understand perfectly and others still might find painfully obvious.  There is no way to strike the perfect balance for all readers.

I find this very interesting because the advice I’ve always seen is to “trust the readers” and not spell things out, but I think that sometimes this leads to writers expecting too much from their readers, leaving too much to be interpreted.  As a reader, I find this frustrating, especially about important things such as characters motives. 

Connecting to the main character (MC) is crucial to my enjoyment of the story.  I need to understand why they do the things they do or I can’t relate to them.  Often times when readers think a character is stupid, it is because the reader doesn’t understand the character’s motives.  A character can do anything, even something stupid, and as long as the reader understands why, it works.

This is why some stories don’t need too much character development.  If the motives are obvious, the reader doesn’t need much backstory to understand why the characters do what they do.  If there are engineered dinosaurs chasing them, the characters want to survive.  I don’t need to understand their childhood and defining life moments.  They do whatever they have to do in order to escape the dinosaurs.  I get that.  It is exactly what anyone would do in their situation.

But the more complex the motives are, the more the characterization is needed to explain the motives.  For example:  Gone with the Wind would be a frustrating read and Scarlett would be an infuriating character if the reader doesn’t understand why she continually pursues Ashley.  Her motives are complex, and not even fully realized by her, so in order for the readers to relate to Scarlett, she needs in-depth character development.

Of course I’m sure that there are plenty of readers who didn’t understand Scarlett and probably hated her (or thought she was stupid) and hated the book because of it.  This goes backs to what Elizabeth Bear said about each reader being different and needing more or less on the page to understand.

I read the book Everneath a while back that I reviewed on The Prosers Read.  I thought the book had an interesting premise and fascinating mythology, but what held the book back for me was that I didn’t understand the MC’s motives and because of that I never connected to her.  And I’m sure that there were readers who didn’t have that problem, but for me I wanted the POV to go deeper, and to see more of what the character was thinking and feeling.  I found myself working too hard to try to figure out why she was acting the way she was acting, and I came up with possible reasons, but none of them seemed to be supported by what was on the page. 

I’m not saying that I need motives spelled out for me.   In fact subtext is very important for characters motives.  Very few of humans are self-aware enough to understand why they do the things they do, and characters should be the same way.  Characters should think they know what they want and why, but rarely they do.  Still the evidence needs to be on the page to support that subtext.

So a character’s motivation is complicated (unless their motives are truly simple like wanting to survive).  If there is too much on the page, the character comes across as too self-aware and feels false, but if there is too little, the reader may not understand the character enough to connect with them.  So it is very difficult to strike this balance, and impossible to make it work for all readers.

So what do we do? 

I think this is a tough question that has no easy answer, but in her blog posts, Elizabeth Bear says it best.

“And I guess the answer is really to write the story I want to read, but try to make it as open as I can while still meeting my own needs as a reader. To embrace my own quirks and transmit them honestly, because anything else results in self-homogenization, and since my readers aren’t widgets, it doesn’t help me any to try to be a widget myself.”

I agree completely with her.  I think a lot of these writing dilemmas come down to doing what works best for us as readers.  If you can’t please everyone, you might as well please the one person you know you can, and I promise, there will be plenty of readers who share your tastes.  J



  1. Good post.

    I think a good way would be to mix the hand holding into the information you simply need to add to describe the world. (I wanted to write infodump but that's usually used in a negative way). Hold the reader's hand until they know enough about the world to make their own conclusions. Then let them do it and hope they make the right assumptions.
    How do you know when it's enough? I'll call you in 75 years... ;)

    When I read/watch a story and it lacked the depth to enjoy it properly, I tend to invent it on my own. For instance, I didn't think much about the movie Titanic until I tried to see past the romantic elements. Eventually I found my own interpretation of that movie and now I can enjoy it.
    This was also great practice for my own stories.

    1. I agree that world building needs a little more hand holding. :) Whenever I read a new fantasy novel, it takes me a while to understand the rules of the world. I think this is a time when it is easy to lose readers if the world is too confusing.

      LOL, I loved Titanic, but I'm sure that doesn't surprise anyone. :)

  2. I think it all depends on who the audience is and what the writer wants to say. Is there a clear message that the writer is trying to get acrossed? If you want to make the reader rethink his/her view of something? I think it is best to raise the questions but give no answers in religious themes because it reflects our earthly experience. So leaving questions about death, God, our exsistence works best to make the reader question what they believe.

    This is probably because of the way my brain works but a lot of times books or movie that try to be to clever it disinterest me.

    I think the Scarlett reference was good. It is hard to know how the audience is going to relate to a charactor. In fact, Jane Austen said of Emma that she believed no one would like her herione except her, which was wrong many people love Emma. I think a writer should trust his/her instincts and tell the story the way it needs to be told.

    1. I've heard that about story about Jane Austen too. While Emma isn't nearly as awesome as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. I liked her. I think she's a good example that a heroine can be very flawed and still likable.

      And I do agree that themes should be subtle and left open to interpretation. No one likes to be preached to.

  3. Fantastic post, MaryAnn. It can be hard to know what readers will get. For instance, there is a scene in the last Hunger Games book where I just did NOT get what Katniss was doing, and it irked me... but when I asked some readers online they all claimed to have known exactly what was going on. I just beta'd a manuscript where there were things that felt a little too subtle to me, but I just couldn't tell if they were too subtle just for me, or if other readers would also be confused. It was really hard to give feedback because I could see how clarifying any given scene might easily go too far the other direction.

    I agree with Martin that setting up the world is really important. One of my biggest pet peeves is when authors try to artificially create tension by holding back key information about how the world works, or by holding back any information that the characters and/or narrator should know.

    1. Hmmm, was that manuscript mine? We've had a few chats about this subject before which helped inspire this posts. :)

      I hate holding back information to create tension too. That is very frustrating to me as a reader.

  4. This is a hard issue! I'm at the point in my writing where "embracing my own quirks" seems to be the most important lesson I can learn. It helps to know that I'm not alone. If I'm conveying information in a way that is satisfying to me, I can't lose that in an attempt to please some imaginary reader. That's why getting feedback from multiple people can be so helpful.

    1. I agree. You definitely need feedback from several people because everyone is so different.

      I really like Elizabeth Bear's line about "embracing quirks." I think that is a real key to writing, to reach a point where you feel comfortable and confident enough to be yourself. I think this is one of the things that makes someone's writing really sing.

  5. Excellent post. Clarity is one of the issues I notice most when writing and reading. I need to feel a grasp of the world and situation - even if my perception is amended later. It's a real balancing act. Thanks for the link to the other post, too.

  6. This is one of those posts I'm going to keep coming back too, I think. Brilliantly done.

  7. Thanks Susan and Sheena. I thought Elizabeth Bear's post was absolutely brilliant. I was happy to share it.


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