1. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Characters with ambivalent or unclear motives

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Sidewinder, Apr 5, 2011.

    This question is in reference to this story. A reviewer made a good point that my MC seems inconsistent throughout the story. I realized that this is because the character is unclear about his own motivation or identity in the story.

    Motivation is what keeps the reader interested in a character, but what do you do with a character who is defined by his ambivalence? If your MC is not driven towards a single goal, and held back from progress by conflicting desires, how do make sure that you don't lose the reader? How do you represent a character who is torn?

    Any ideas would be helpful.
     
  2. KillianRussell
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    KillianRussell Contributing Member

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    Spark some curiosity have your character under react to event that most of us would over react , in d-log have him answer a question that would normally inspire a essay like answer in monosyllabic grunts...expose his ambivilance as a "watchable " character flaw

    an everyone else runs from the burning theatre ,he walks type thing.
     
  3. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    All characters should have motivation and goals, or they feel false, because it IS false.

    Being motivated to not be motivated to do anything is a form of motivation. Having the goal to not have goals is a goal.

    Successful stories about apathy don't have a character mindlessly not caring. They care deeply, just for whatever reason that caring gets perverted or denied or suppressed in the form of apathy, but it's still there, and will still need presented on the screen.

    Successful stories about anti-social characters don't depict the characters sitting home, comfortably avoidant, but out in the world actively struggling with their nature.

    I think you're probably getting my point. :p

    The struggle is in your pov, perhaps. I haven't looked at the story, but my guess is it's a distant pov and we're only watching the character, and watching a character who's apathetic is the height of boring fiction. So, what do you do? Dig in deeper, adopt a limited, close perspective (or execute better) and really get into the character's psyche.

    If you do this, and really understand the character and get to know them and work to capture the truth of the moment, you'll find even characters that seem without motivations or goals are actually full of them, and characters who at first just seemed apathetic may even end up caring the most.

    Of course, this it tough stuff to write. It's easy to plot out a story and push around two-dimensional characters. Much harder to really get into a character's head, figure them out, and try to bring that touch of humanity alive in a real and authentic way.

    I responded in this thread about how to write in a way that builds this connection and empathy, or you can look at my blog, but won't repeat it all as I'll just end up boring myself :p
     
  4. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    @popsicledeath -- Clarification: talking about ambivalence, not apathy. The POV is interior monologue, actually. The criticism made was that the character seems to be shifting and inconsistent. This is completely valid, but it's also central to my character's identity. The problem isn't that my character isn't driven, but that he is driven in multiple directions at once. The story is largely an attempt to capture the feeling of being torn. I'm wondering about how to combat the inconsistency the reviewer mentioned. Anyway, keeping in mind it's a first draft, take a look if you get a chance. You seem like someone who might have a valuable perspective.

    @KillianRussell -- Thanks. As everyone runs he walks is a good idea. I'm still not sure if it applies to this character, though. I'm trying to convey something more gut-wrenching than that.
     
  5. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Ambivalence... shrug, it doesn't matter. All the anti-action sort of states are the same, and require the same attention.

    You mention your character doesn't know what he wants, but it sounds perhaps like you don't, either? As the writer, you need to know, and depending on what you're trying to accomplish most of the time the reader will also know, or at least have hints, and that becomes the story. Characters need obstacles, whether it's man v nature, man v man, or man v self as is the case in these sort of inner-turmoil stories.

    That the advice still stands, what you do to make this work is make sure the character is still pointed toward a goal, even if they don't know what it is or are actively denying it. All people have motivations and direction, and that needs to come out, if not to the character, then still to the reader.

    If you're capturing the truth of the moment, even an anti-action character will still have a discernible direction of momentum that is dictated by what they yearn for, and what they yearn for gives all actions direction (if they're relevant and not just random, meaningless fluff), and thus a character will have motivation and goals and purpose, no matter how ambivalent or apathetic the characters think they are.

    Or maybe the reviewer was just wrong, lol.

    Hrm, inner monologue... maybe it's one of those 'wandering the streets or in a social setting giving commentary on everything but nothing really happens' stories that often just seem inconsistent and rambling, not moving to a salient point or meaning. Am interested to find out, so will take a look if I get a chance.
     
  6. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is it possible you just don't know the character well enough yet? Perhaps in the second draft you will have a better understanding of him, and then he will become clearer. A character shouldn't be unclear or inconsistent just because he is torn, which means that either you friend has misunderstood something, or he has just evolved a lot from his original self and you haven't gone back and fixed it yet.
     
  7. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Spklvr said what I was going to say - my characters don't start with a clear motivation they develop it as I write - I just make it about their reactions to the obstacles I throw at them.
     
  8. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks guys. Some more clarification might be needed. Just talking through this might help me.

    @popsicledeath -- I think in terms of anti-action there are massive differences between ambivalence and apathy. For example, if you're asked "would you like the chicken or the fish" and you can't decide because both sound good, it's different than if you can't decide because you don't care for chicken or fish. To put it crudely, in this story MC can have Girl A or Girl B, but really wants both Girl A and Girl B. Then there's also this motivation of decency and goodness lying underneath it all. (Overly simplistic account of it.) So it's delicate work dealing with this state of inaction. If one element gets left out, it's not true to the character, and the result is stagnation, a desire for a deus ex machina to come along and fix things instead of facing it. Also slowly realizing that this desire is unrealistic. If you do get a chance to have a look, thanks. I don't usually solicit reviews, but from the few conversations we've been involved in, I do value your opinion.

    @spklvr adn Elgaisma: Quite the opposite, in fact. This character is far too close to me. I know him far too well. Although I guess in the end what you're advising is still true. I probably need to let him change, grow, and become something else. I just don't want to leave out the fundamental.
     
  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Even with Socrates on a new first draft it takes me time to develop him. I have written four books with him (as well as a novella, and blog - three of the novel length stories are first person present tense). He still doesn't always flow right until I have he story worked out. I don't think it is possible to know a character better than I know him lol If I annoy him he is more than capable of not speaking to me or going off in a huff - only last week i tried to put a swan in a children's story (his birdform) he was really not happy and you should have heard him when I told him I was writing a better looking character than him lol I can chat with him outside of the novels and write short stories easily enough but to work out how he sounds at each age or reacts to new characters takes time.

    As you pointed out characters change and grow - he won't become something else he will still be your character just you know him better. Do you take him out of the story at all ? Maybe blog with him, or write short stories ? Maybe write him at a different time in his life ? I 'cast' my characters with actors to help with body language and fleshing them out (which leads into interaction and motivations), also make up scrapbooks of clothes they might work etc. There is an example in my Charlotte Pimpernel blog.


    I have written Socrates from the age of seven up until one-hundred-and-fifty-one years. I have written him as a secondary character and a main one and that can be odd - when I started my second novel I fully expected to find it easy after all I knew the location and most of the main characters. However I had seen them through the eyes of Socrates' younger brother. Socrates had been an older brother not much else - I was now writing him as a fully rounded person. Nate in my first book had been a friend/big brother type - in the second book he was a lover. The scary Abbot of my first book became an old and treasured friend. Part of the second book was written from Nate's point of view and Socrates went from being a fully rounded character to being just a lover and a disturbed one at that. Taking my then confident wise and slightly bizarre character right back to being a nervous abused and neglected seven year old just starting school was interesting as well. I wrote the Novella up until he and Nate became lovers at seventeen. My current work in progress was interesting I took both Nate and Angus out of the picture (Angus is his not so little, little brother) I won't be doing it again writing Socrates without Nate is like having half a character.
     
  10. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks Elgaisma -- there's probably some developing that needs to go on here. To be clear, this is one of those cases where the character is a fictionalized version of myself, like Nick Adams or Henry Chinaski.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    :) Even then you are not a character - and it may help even with removing the character from yourself. Even someone who writes an autobiography needs to become a character rather than a person or it is just a textbook and not a story.

    My Mary Sue like this is a seven-year-old boy called Johnny. Of all my characters he is the one that is a fictionalized version of myself and he still needs developing as a character. Please excuse any incoherancy have almost finished the bottle of wine !!
     
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  12. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Haha! I could go for some wine right now. Yeah, there needs to be some detachment here. I think you've got a great point. I'm just worried about losing that fundamental truth in the story.
     
  13. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    you won't as much as I talk about my characters as though they are detached from myself I know they are all part of myself. My best friend and husband really struggle with my early drafts because they say it is like sitting inside my head to read. They can see where the characters have come from - my husband doesn't like the dress I have put him in for one of them lol

    Give your character a little life - let them breathe they will soon tell you who they are, what they want to do and where they are going.

    You write poems it would stifle them if you didn't write with instinct. Novels function the same way - too much concious thought initially stifles and stilts them.

    From what you have said I think you have your character imprisoned and strangled lol He is tied up and beaten. Let him go free worst that happens is you delete it.
     
  14. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hm. Lots to think about there. Still wondering about the question of ambivalence. It's really so central to the story.
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Then keep it and round him out in other ways give him body language and nice backside or funny nose or spot on his chin, maybe spiky hair. Give him ambivalance to the story as an attitude but still round out the character give him fun dialogue and reactions.

    The one ability I know I have is with characters - other things I am not so good at but I can use them to tell a story feel free to ask questions and I can show you things,
     
  16. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks, Elgaisma. I may well do that.
     
  17. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    ^I couldn't agree with Elgaisma's comment any more.

    With what experience I've had creating characters, they start out very shallow being either extremely shy or very in your face. But the more I write about them and ask myself why he would be this way or why she'd say this certain thing, the more I begin to get a clearer picture of who they are. Soon, they become more stable characters to me and don't flip-flop all the time.
     
  18. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    Well look no further than POTC 2. Jack was ambivalence in every sense. He wanted to live forever and take Jones' place on the Flying Dutchman. But at the same time he wanted to be the last pirate standing and save himself from the clutches of the East India Trading Company. Those conflicts of saving himself but also the loyalty he had formed in relation to his comrades kept him busy throughout the movie. But in the end, his sense of obligation to his friends won out. That is how we were not lost.

    To show how a character is torn between multiple goals, desires, dreams, show their weaknesses. But also show how they overcome those weak moments. This will keep your readers following your mc closely to see if he/she does the right thing for himself or for the good of your story.
     
  19. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    ^I think my second paragraph is very crucial in this discussion. I mean, what number one thing do we as readers look for in a story? The juciest parts? The areas of conflict, right? And what defining areas of conflict would we find in ambivalent characters? Their moments of weakness. The moment when they give in to their own, greedy desires instead of what’s the right thing to do.

    What comes next though? After their parts of weakness, what do we readers look for just as importantly? We look for them to redeem themselves and rise above their own wants or needs for the greater good. We like to see them perform acts of justice. It drives our minds to read further.
     
  20. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    I just read the first handful of paragraphs. Stripping things down - I might be wrong, there might be other stuff, further on, that makes a mockery of this - you seem to be describing a young fellow who wants to have sex with someone but doesn't want all the other stuff that comes with it: certain emotions, vapid conversations etc etc

    Forgive me if there's more to it..but are most adolescent males ambivalent now?
     
  21. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    How many actual people do you know whose motives are never conflicted, or whose behavior is 100% consistent?

    What you. the writer, has to ask is whether the inconsistencies are consistent :). In other words, are the variations in character behavior believable in context?
     
  22. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I think Cog has summed up more or less what I was getting at in my review. There are passages where you do accomplish the kind of ambivalence that you're talking about, but then you undermine these in other passages where the character is suddenly wildly emotional about something. The way the character seems to swing between the two poles without any rhyme or reason is the issue that I was calling attention to. If he's ambivalent to the end result, then his descriptions of either of the girls shouldn't spark the kind of intensity of emotion that they seem to.

    I alluded in my review to the work of Bret Easton Ellis, and I really think that if you haven't already read him, you should. He has a mastery of this kind of ambivalence you are trying to capture, and he goes about it in a completely different way. Where your character is introspective, emotional and self-aware, his ambivalent characters are externally focussed, unmoved and aloof. The levelness of their thoughts and reactions communicate a sense of apathy or ambivalence and the reader is left to deduce a great deal through subtext and implication. This mechanic works really well because it relies on the reader to supply emotion and motivation, and often to work hard to do so, which emphasises the emotional vapidity of his characters. Where your story fell apart for me was that you seemed to be using this character type, but since so much of the piece was introspection, it created a conflict with the passages which were set in the present and were externally focussed. Further, you have a poet's tendency to over-do emotion--while it works really well in short, focused poetry, in prose it doesn't work, and with your work it created this overwrought, emotionally heavy protagonist who was clearly meant to be rather more, as you say, ambivalent.
     
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  23. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    How many actual people do any of us know that, were we able to follow them around for a week and be privy to their thoughts, feelings and motivations, would actually make for a good story.

    It's like the people that write a story (using the term loosely here) about the depressed writer who sits around all day not writing, making witty cracks at the tv as he sits alone and even some smart commentary about the state of the world, before by the end of the story simply stumbling off to bed, both him and the reader knowing tomorrow won't be any different.

    There are millions of people like that, but it doesn't mean they make for a good story. Reality is good, but depicting reality for the sake of depicting reality is usually bad storytelling. The main difference between things that are 'real' and stories that are successful isn't in the depiction of reality, but in a story the writer can shape and control the message. And to do that, the writer, not necessarily the character, needs to know exactly what the character's motivation is.

    And sure, sometimes characters get a mind of their own and halfway done writing will inform us of things we didn't know when we started writing. This is great, as it's often insights that are more apt or relevant or simply just more interesting, as it sprung up in the context of the story, but imo the best reaction isn't to thank your lucky stars your character is now changing his mind and will seem confused in the story just like many real people. When something like this is changed, that's when writers should go back and revise, ensuring everything is still working to control the message, especially if that message is changing.

    Of course, as writers we try at all times to make it look like the story is just naturally occurring, that we aren't there behind a curtain pulling the strings. There's a big difference between ensuring what we're writing resembles reality, and simply writing reality. The former lets us shape our stories in a way that is believable, the latter opens our stories up to all sorts of frivolity, randomness and confusion. Meaning, were I the mother of this character, I'd probably be concerned at how confused and inconsistent he seems at times. Whereas, as the writer (or reading as a writer), I'm more concerned these things mean the story, the message, isn't certain or being controlled, knowing that if the writer goes back and really controls the message in each moment, ensures it's building to the story he's actually trying to tell, then most of those character-things will iron themselves out anyway as a byproduct (because things that don't make sense, and aren't working for the clarified story design, no matter how clever or profound, will be cut, and only relevant things will remain).
     
  24. art
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    For the purposes of the thread at least it might be helpful if you say what you're aiming for and what you mean by ambivalence. To my mind, ambivalence does not preclude violent displays of emotion etc etc.
     
  25. Sidewinder
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    Sidewinder Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks guys -- especially Cogito and arron89. You've nailed exactly what I've got to focus on. Yeah arron, I have read Ellis. Less Than Zero, right? That's a good comparison for what I'm going for. Maybe I should read some more of his stuff.

    I'm taking this to the Character Development Clinic.
     

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