Motivation Not Motive: Some Thoughts on Character and Plot in Mystery Writing

Sorry I’m a little late. I don’t know what happened to yesterday but I blew it. The whole day. I don’t know what happened to it. I think it was eaten up by an allergy attack – my head was full and stupid and my eyes felt like they were about to pop out of my skull. It wasn’t pleasant. So I blew off the blog for yesterday and literally crawled through the writing quota. I know. You’re wondering how one can literally crawl through a writing quota and now think I’m one of those assholes who throw out ‘literally’ all the time. I suppose this is one of those gray areas. If you’re a total word snob with no appreciation for fun ‘Literally’ will bug you but I won’t retract it. If you’d seen me trying to write yesterday you’d know why.

Anyway. I have a serious beef against Motive in thrillers and mystery. I hate it. HATE it. Writers tend to think that it’s really important to the appreciating the antagonist to haul out the litany of why they do what they do. Personally I could care less and can’t possibly know. I’m much more concerned with the Who and the How. I feel that we’re really looking for Motivation not necessarily the motive. Sure, it’s still important to your story: Motive, Means and Opportunity and all that, but just be careful in how you handle it. Do NOT become heavy handed or dazzled with your own brilliance in making this intricate maze of motive that all will gape at and be amazed. The best stories are the simplest: the one’s that have plenty of room to explore your characters motivation or the vector of their journey.

Motivation is, simply put, the driving force behind a character. Sit down a few seconds and consider your own motivations. Unless you are a vapid, shallow twit you probably have dozens of motivations bubbling up in your little skull at any moment: love, money, success, fame, fortune, respect. They compete for your ego’s attention, vie for prominence in your actions and drive you from one thing to another. Now, if you know this about yourself why get so wrapped up in the why of your antagonists? Sure, plot is largely built on Why someone had to die but in my opinion and more germane to your character is what motivated them to do it? Fear? Rejection? Poverty? Hunger? This is where your character lives. It’s their basic fundamental psychological position. This is the space that gives you room to explore their psychology and to do that you’re going to have to go deeper than the basic ‘i’m getting revenge for my wife cheating on me.’ or ‘he stole my car’.

Watch CSI sometime. Seriously. This may be the only time I advocate watching CSI for anything other than comedy. Actually, in this case you’re watching it for comedy too. It’s really a very funny show if you’re a writer. In fact I would take CSI for comedy over any sitcom out there. It’s not simply the mind-bogglingly silly way they lurch the show from point A to B (then to C, D, E, F etc) it’s the final payoff you get when you finally get the scoop on why Arnold Fwoopdidoo III killed his wifes mothers brothers sisters cousins uncle with a plastic spoon and a teaspoon of salt. Usually (I would say about 90& of the time) the motive is something so completely idiotic that no one EVER would come up with murder as the solution. And I mean no one. Not even true serial killing psychopaths. It’s inane. Honestly, I don’t know how CSI writers look themselves in the mirror every day. Or they’re laughing their way to the bank.

What I’m saying is everyone’s been cheated. Everyone has had something stolen from them at some point. Many people have been cheated on. Many people have done the cheating. These things happen but most of the time they don’t end up in homicide (in spite of what the news would like you to think.) So what is it, psychologically, that snaps in someone? That’s far more interesting than ‘He slept with my wife so I killed him’. What does that look like? How does it twist the brain? This is the meat of motivation. To do it well you will need to engage the reader with really exploring the perception of it rather than the usual interrogation moralizing by the officer and the long-winded exposition from the suspect.

I tend to think – and this is just my opinion – that much of that snapping point is simply the flip side of something we tend to think of as noble. That’s the area where procedural or thriller becomes interesting to me. What does it look like when Love turns to Rage? What does it feel like when the pursuit of justice becomes the desire for vengeance? Isn’t this what fascinates us so much about serial killers and profiling? It’s the fact that they live in the hinterlands of ideals, they operate from the knife-edge of disgust and adoration of their own psyches. Put a weapon in the hand of someone who completely loses control of their motivation (or someone to whom losing control IS a motivation) and see what happens. I guarantee that it’s much more interesting than cooking up a silly elaborate plot based on motive.


Categories: Fiction, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Motivation Not Motive: Some Thoughts on Character and Plot in Mystery Writing

  1. richardcrompton

    Excellent points. CSI is to crime fiction what Bud Lite is to The Macallan.

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