Monday, February 28, 2011

But why?

I finished a thriller/suspense novel a little while ago and am not sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the first third, but by the middle of the book, I had lost interest. I finished the book just to see if the ending would capture my attention again. It didn't.

The writing is good and the plot interesting, but the characters' motivations remained unaddressed. I followed along, despite not knowing why this character would go there and that character would turn up here, but I felt like a small child being told to stay quiet and not ask any questions on a long and complicated journey using multiple modes of transportation.
It went from being frustrating to infuriating to numbing.



This experience made me think about the importance of motivation in a story. Why do characters do what they do? Are they confined by their personalities: a loving person cannot help but choose the loving thing and a curious person cannot help but seek out answers? Are they succumbing to circumstances? Sophie had to choose one child or the other. Are their actions solely dictated by plot?

I don't mean that we need to know at every point why a character would something. Keeping it hidden for a while keeps the readers intrigued. Keeping some motivations hidden the entire time makes the reader ponders even after the book ends. But keeping almost all the motivations hidden most of the time makes a story just a series of arbitrary events
. Why would any reader care?

How much tolerance do you have for not knowing why characters do things in a book? Have you read a book that frustrated you this way?





22 comments:

Bish Denham said...

I just posted about being jaded by kitlit. I'm not finding adultlit as well writen.

Solvang Sherrie said...

There have been several books that kind of left me cold that way. It always makes me wonder when I see them become popular.

Laurel Garver said...

Motivationless actions would make me put down a book for sure. I can't tell you how many books I've read with strong beginnings that just get suckier the farther you read. I really wish the business didn't overempasize the first 50 pages to the degree it does. Middles and endings get short shrift so much these days.

Yat-Yee said...

I am glad I am not the only one who finds the lack of motivation a big turn-off.

Bish: interesting. I'll have to check out your post.

Sherrie: I've done some head-scratching about some popular books too, although the reasons are not always the same.

Laurel: I agree with you so much! All that first line hook business has gone way over board.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I think the reason a book resonates is we care deeply about the central characters, and that happens because we get to know what makes them tick. Motivation is part of any important action. If the story is in a character's POV and there's no motivation, the author is holding back and that serves no one, in my opinion.
And if the author thinks this adds mystery or is clever, I can only say it makes me feel manipulated.

Yat-Yee said...

Tricia: I am with you. When I feel an author, or filmmaker, doing something deliberately to manipulate my emotions, I stop caring

barefootmeg said...

I want to know more than just what motivates a character. Especially if the motivations are all pretty much what you would expect given the age or situation of the characters). I want motivations that connect with me in some way. Better yet, I want motivations in characters that help me understand my own motivations better. If there's not a connection between me and the characters (or at least one character) then I don't get very pulled into a book.

I also want characters to have consistent motivations. When they're thinking one way one moment and another way another moment and the only reason I can determine for the change of mind is that it helps to "thicken the plot" then the writer is playing a game, not telling a story. :-P

(ps: my mom just sent me a link to your blog. i look forward to reading through some more of your posts.)

C. N. Nevets said...

@Yat-Yee - I think from what I know of you that you are likely a close reader, so I will agree with you. The books that probably frustrate you in that way would probably frustrate me, as well.

On the other hand, I've also heard this kind of thing from people who read neither closely nor deeply and cannot see any element of a story that is not explicit. So I'll admit that I typically cringe when I read people making this complaint.

However, as I said -- I think I have a feel for what kind of reader you are, and I'm sure that this book was simply devoid of life.

Sorry you had that experience. That's disappointing.

Domey Malasarn said...

I'm okay with not knowing why a character does something as long as I feel like there is a reason behind there somewhere. Like you say, the mystery of finding out what that reason is can be really intriguing. But, if I feel like a character is just trying to keep up with the plot of the story, that's a turn off.

Kelly H-Y said...

Yes ... some I've finished to see what the 'hype' was about; others I couldn't make it through. So frustrating.

Yat-Yee said...

@barefootmeg: thanks for visiting and please thank your mom for me as well. Looks like you live in my town.

Thanks for bringing up the point about the consistency in motivation. I can see how a character can slowly change over the course of a book, but one whose motivations fluctuate can certainly render him/her inauthentic.

Yat-Yee said...

@Nevets: Thanks. I don't think I've heard the designation of "close reader" before (close-talker, on the other hand, is one I'm sure many would remember from Seinfeld.) Yes, I do read with care, and I do love subtlety, so I am very glad you pointed out the differences.

Yat-Yee said...

@Domey: You've said it better than I did: as long as there is a reason behind an action/decision. And I very much like the imagery of a character keeping up with the plot of the story. The poor cardboard figure will never succeed.

Yat-Yee said...

@Kelly: Maybe I should have asked in my post for stories that have kept the intrigue till the end. Do you have any examples?

MG Higgins said...

Yes, I completely agree. I'm very impatient when it comes to revealing motivation; I need to care and empathize with the main character pretty quickly or I lose interest.

Karen Akins said...

I just want to give a little "Hear, hear!" to what Laurel said. And, of course, she said it much better than I could have.

But as a writer, I have to say that it's easier said (and recognized in other's writing) than done."

Cheryl Reif said...

I like the way @Domey put it--I'm okay with not understanding a character's motivation, as long as I'm convinced there *is* a motivation. Then the question of why a character is acting a certain way becomes a mystery, pulling me forward through the story.

Cheryl Reif said...

It's fate: I finished reading your post and almost immediately read Jane Friedman's blog "6 Common Plot Fixes." Point #5: Beware of Unmotivated Actions. Worth a read :) http://bit.ly/ee1Q9G

Yat-Yee said...

Cheryl: it is fate. I will definitely read Janet Friedman's post. Also, the day I posted this, Writer Unboxed also dealt with this very issue. Their post was titled "Why oh Why?" Something is in the air that writers are breathing.

Domey Malasarn said...

I'm gonna start holding my breath.

PW.Creighton said...

Motivations should be one of the first things a writer should tackle in the project. Also the first post I wrote about on my blog.

Yat-Yee said...

PW Creighton: Character motivation sure is central, isn't it? Thanks for visiting.