Writing fictional characters: hidden motivations

pexels-photo-251287.pngA strange incident happened on the bus last week. I was sat next to a student, roughly 17 to 22 years of age. Neither of us spoke to the other.

Five minutes from the bus’s final destination, a lady close to my age got on the bus. She didn’t look for a seat, instead she leant her back on the plastic section between me and my neighbour. There were empty seats close to us.

My neighbour tapped my arm and seemed to say “could you give your seat up.” I stood up immediately. I felt shamed. I only expect a much younger passenger to ask me to move if I have failed to notice obvious disabilities.

The lady sat down. Then less than a minute later the student got off the bus. I was perturbed.

Afterwards I wondered. Had I misheard? Had I failed to notice that both women  were disabled? Was the student having an anxiety attack brought on by the lady standing too close to her? The younger woman showed almost no skin, whereas the older lady wore short shorts and a vest top. Was there a cultural factor?

I don’t know what the other two women were thinking. Their motivations were hidden to me.

Hidden motivations are very useful in storytelling.

When we write fiction we add depth to our stories by giving our characters secrets. The characters’ hidden thoughts and feelings shape their actions and cause tension or conflict with other characters.

Look at how radically different these scenarios are when James’s secret changes. Can you imagine how each secret might cause tension or conflict for James at the bank?

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is secretly saving up for gender transition surgery. James doesn’t tell bosses because James fears discrimination. 

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is a spy for a foreign power. James is waiting for the signal to sabotage the bank’s systems from within. James has fallen in love with the CEO.

James begins an impressive job at an international bank. James is very unhappy because he wants to be a nurse. He doesn’t tell his bosses because he fears they will fire him before he has saved up enough money to go to nursing school.

In each scenario, the nature of James’s secret affects his relationships with his banking colleagues in different ways. This is how secret motivations can drive stories onwards.

Each scenario brings up unique themes. For example, the gender transition surgery story could become an exploration of masculinity in a macho culture.

A fiction writing exercise

Fill in the gaps in this story. Try to complete the exercise at least five times. With each scenario, think about how Jimmy’s secret will shape his relationships with his colleagues.

Jimmy enjoys working for the British government, but his employers don’t know his secret. His secret is ________________________________________________________________. As a result of his secret Jimmy must _________________________________________________________.

5 thoughts on “Writing fictional characters: hidden motivations

  1. Great ideas for fiction writing. I’m working on a bike memoir. Wonder if it could be fictionalized, but seems boring enough as it is… Yet i feel compelled to write it as nonfiction.


      1. Yes, it is. If our I didn’t like other people’s stories so much more than my own. Especially when on TV or film. I’d have more time. Finding people to be interested in mine is a huge enough effort as it is, but I don’t do social media. We do our best.

        Liked by 1 person

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