If characters are the engine that drives the story, motivation is fuel. It is especially true when plotting a mystery, suspense/thriller. We concentrate on the motivation of the justice-seeker, whether s/he is in law enforcement or an ordinary everyday person [child, teen or adult]. As the reader we are concentrating on the investigator. As the writer we must keep the motivation of every one of our characters.
The perpetrator’s motives are just as important to understand as those of the main character. Whether it is a thief who does it for the money, out of boredom, etc., or a murderer who kills for hire or to avoid exposure or any number of reasons that are unfathomable to people considered “normal,” as writer we must realize that to them their motivations seem reasonable.
The side kick has an important role, even if it is so the main character doesn’t have to internalize everything or appear to be talking to himself. They often bring out alternatives to the action of the main character: “Let’s get out of here!” Their motivations will be shown only on the surface, but they are there. Are they tagging along because they need love, approval, validation? Why do they stick around when things get dangerous? Fear of rejection? Even if they are there to be a sounding board or a mirror for the main character we the writer should understand them. Their motivations will be revealed through their actions and dialogue.
Characters have lived everyday life up to the time when we “tune in.” They come to the story already motivated. For the primary child, the motives will be age appropriate and probably more self-orientated. For adolescents, they will have more mature motivations. The teens will adult. And for adult fiction there have been more ambitions and eye-openers and probably disappointments. All of these go into creating the motivations and personalities. As mystery writers we definitely need a backstory on our characters. Why does our main character try to find the culprit herself instead of calling the police? It’s the consequences of failure plus the sum total of her life’s experiences—motivation.
Let’s take a plot idea and see what might happen. The situation is an extremely valuable one of a kind book has is missing from the rare books collection in the library. It’s a signed copy of Mark Twain’s first book with marginal notes by the author himself [don’t we always wish we’d said something a bit better after the books is published?]. Since we want this to be an ordinary person doing the investigating, we create a special collections librarian, one who isn’t exactly up on her people skills [create a suitable backstory that makes it seem reasonable]. Why wouldn’t she call the police?
If she did you can still keep her involved because with violent crimes rampant they will not put a non-violent crime first in priority [unless you want someone to have been killed during the robbery]. You could complicate it with a time limit—the library is having a gala fund raiser on the occasion of Twain’s birthday [a month away] and the volume will be displayed for the first time since its acquisition. You could bring in a detective in the robbery division [looking to get a promotion]. If you want it to be a romantic suspense, he’s eligible [a really good backstory!] or if not, maybe bring in an older guy who was forced to retire but wasn’t ready.
Before the story is over you need some physical threat [both the librarian and the thief will need strong motives to bring that about. And the librarian, our heroine, will need a stronger motivation to take that risk. Is keeping her job a strong enough motive? There are only so many special collections jobs in the world, but there are other things she could do using her special skills
It’s got to be a stronger motive, otherwise call the insurance agent and collect and move on. It must be stronger still. It needs to be something that would shake her very foundation if she fails. It’s personal. If she is to walk into the lion’s den it will have to be unique to her. I have read far too many mystery books where the heroine tromps up to the killer armed with nothing but a few nasty words and for no reason other than she likes to solve mysteries. It just makes her look stupid and the author look lazy. Her wellbeing, her life as she knows it, must be the consequence of failure. Motive, Opportunity and Method aren’t exclusively the clues to solving a mystery. They are the keys to characters we will care and root for.
Curiosity is a good immediate motivator to get the ball rolling in mysteries and suspense, but when the main character or someone they love is under threat it is not enough motivation to keep digging. Then it becomes a case of self-preservation. It must seem reasonable to the reader that they don’t call the authorities. Perhaps it will put them, a loved one or something greater than themselves in jeopardy.
Duty to a cause or country, although commendable, usually needs you to dig deeper into the protagonist’s backstory to discover why the protagonist is so duty-bound, even in the face of real danger. Even philanthropists and benevolent people are motivated by some inner drive like seeking love or validation. Dig deep enough and your character will reveal vulnerability in self-esteem, regardless of his station in life.
We readers like to see the antagonist get his comeuppance from his own doing, but we don’t do revenge by individuals. We seek justice instead. Usually the main character has a hand in that, although he or she leaves the punishment to law enforcement or witnesses the perpetrator in a “biter bitten” situation. Perhaps he is snared in his own trap. Lonely revengers are big in some circles, but a good psychologically solid story with motivated characters will keep me turning the pages. When these motivations lead the character to the crossroads where life or death is the consequences of their decision, I’m in for the chill of it.
Mary Blount Christian has had mysteries published for beginning readers, teens, and adults. She teaches on-line and still writes.