How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

1 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

When you begin a novel, it’s easy to find a detail that pulls you into a character or plot line, and then another detail, and then another, and then one day you look at the accumulated pages and think, “What is this?” One response to this question is to create an outline, a big-picture snapshot of what’s in a novel and where it’s going. The problem, of course, is that outlines don’t create order; they only reveal what’s already there. Figuring out plot and character and what happens next is still the writer’s job. There are no shortcuts, except for maybe this one.

If you can identify a single, driving impulse in a character—a fundamental need that colors every aspect of his or her behavior—then sometimes a story will snap into focus. Hasanthika Sirisena does exactly that in her story, “Ismail.” It’s included in her new collection The Other One and was originally published at Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Ismael is the story’s narrator, and his story begins like this:

How to explain why my brother Harry and I stood in my best friend Abdul’s backyard at two in the morning carrying five large Mason jars filled with milk and turkey parts we’d bought at Fairway?

From the first line, we know the characters’ motivations will be complicated. Abdul is Ismael’s best friend, and we soon learn that the Ismael’s brother Harry is in love with Abdul’s sister. And yet the two brothers are wrecking Abdul’s house. The situation, as the first line suggests, demands an explanation, a big Why? This ought to be easy, right? Ismael must have a good reason for an action that will have serious consequences. The writer simply needs to let the readers know what that reason is.

The problem is that Ismael is smart—perhaps not book smart, since he “nearly flunked tenth grade,” but he’s observant and self-aware and emotionally astute. These are all great traits for a narrator. (I’m a believer in making narrators as smart as their readers.) But it also presents a challenge that can be summed up in a line a lot of us heard as children: “How could someone so smart do something so stupid?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Any factual statement that starts with “Because So-and-so…” is likely to fall flat. Readers are like your skeptical parents. They have no time for thin excuses. But when we’re pressed to really explain ourselves, we often draw blanks. People rarely act rationally. Instead, we respond to deep-seated desires and urges and then rationalize the behavior that follows.

As writers, then, we need to identify our characters’ deep-seated urges. Here is how Sirisena does just that:

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For a time, that’s what knowing Abdul felt like. I’d been okay without him, but once we were friends I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose him. There were days that thought alone—the thought of that loss—left me knocked out on the floor, chest caved in, gasping for air.

Notice the imagery that ends the passage: “gasping for air.” It’s an image of suffocation or drowning, and as anyone who’s ever taken lifeguard training knows, a drowning person isn’t capable of rational responses. Instead, they thrash about and grab hold of whatever object presents itself. That’s the sort of deep-seated desire you’re after: a desire equal to the desire to not die.

Of course, you might be thinking that the lack of sex, money, and love are not the same as the threat of death. But here’s what’s important: the desire doesn’t need to literally be equivalent to dying. Nothing is. It just needs to feel like dying. For Ismail, losing a friend after not having had one feels like dying, and so when it happens, he thrashes about and latches onto whatever seems to keep him afloat: in this case, vengeance.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s find a character’s motivating, deep-seated desire, using “Ismail” by Hasanthika Sirisena as a model:

  1. Start with the action your character must defend. It’s not always the case that action is the best place to start, but it’s probably the place to begin thinking about character and often what draws a writer to a character in the first place. The character is going to do something drastic, with consequences, something that demands an explanation. What is that action? Don’t worry if it doesn’t yet make sense or seems out of character.
  2. Give the character figurative parents to defend it to. This can be as easy as posing this question to your character: Why did you do that? Let your character offer up a list of responses, and then swat them down, if possible, just as a parent would. The goal is to move beyond the easy, unsatisfying explanations until the point at which the figurative parent (you, the writer) can demand, “How can someone so smart do something so stupid?”
  3. Let the character do some soul searching. He might search his past for clues or his family or the other people who surround him: their values or fears. Think in terms of change: the dread, based on experience, that something will change and wreck everything or that nothing will change and everything will remain the same. If you’re familiar with the canon of Western literature from, say, James Joyce to Richard Ford, the statements that results from this soul searching will feel an awful lot like an epiphany. Generally speaking, we’re skeptical of epiphanies now because they’ve been so overused, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared from stories. The passage from “Ismail” could have been an epiphany except that it occurs in the first half of the story. What statement of causation (I acted because) can you draw from your character’s deepest fears or needs?
  4. Make the character defend the action to someone in the storyOne of the biggest mistakes writers make early on is doing everything I’ve just discussed—but doing it all inside a character’s head. Stories like these consist entirely of characters sitting and drinking/smoking and thinking big thoughts, which is boring. So, force the character to defend the action to some other character. Ismail, for example, must defend his actions to his brother. The defense matters, and the impact it has on their relationship matters. That’s where story and plot come from. Who is that other character in your story?

The goal is to figure out where a story is headed by better understanding what motivates a character to act in the first place.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena | Read to Write Stories - November 3, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on figuring out what really drives a character to act, based on Sirisena’s story “Ismail,” click here. […]

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