Character Motivation: Childhood Issues

Character MotivationI wrote a review on Amazon the other day that got me thinking. I like action. I like suspense. I like adventure. Danger, excitement, thrills — these are all great. But I can’t get into a story if there seems to be no good reason for the characters to do the things they do. My coincidence threshold is very, very low. So even though I might enjoy some kinds of story more than others, ultimately it takes more than just a good plot to grab me and hurtle me along as fast as I can keep turning the pages.

It takes character. Each plot element needs to spring, effortlessly and spontaneously, from some aspect of one of the characters, or from the way characters interact. This is crucial when it comes to the protagonist.

“My coincidence threshold is very, very low.”

Would we have cared whether Charlie ever found a golden ticket in his chocolate bar if we didn’t already know about the crippling poverty he was so desperate to escape? We certainly didn’t feel much sympathy for the other children when they met their sticky ends in the chocolate factory. Or, to take another child protagonist, would we have cared so much about Harry Potter’s hijinks if his parents were alive and well and running a small B&B in the Lake District?

Books about writing place a lot of emphasis on character development. I’ve read interviews with best-selling authors who write monologues in character, or conduct interviews with their characters, to get to know them better. Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as saying that every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. We have to know the way our characters think and feel. Then we use those thoughts and feelings to drive the plot forward. That way each plot development reads like the natural consequence of the conditions that precede it, often surprising and obvious at the same time.

It’s not uncommon for a lead character to have an unresolved issue from the past that shapes his or her journey through one book or many. It may be as serious as childhood abuse, or as apparently minor as losing the race for class president. In the case of FBI Agent Sophie Anderson, in the series of crime novels written by PD Martin, it’s the unsolved murder of her brother. Sophie’s drive for justice stems from the loss of her brother John, and her psychic gift (or affliction) first reared its head as a series of dreams presaging John’s disappearance. This drive, we learn in the early books of the series, led Sophie to join the Victoria Police Force, which in turn led to her job as a profiler at the FBI. It is a fundamental building-block of Sophie’s character, and prompts many of her decisions, both good and bad.

“Would we have cared so much about Harry Potter’s hijinks if his parents were alive and well and running a small B&B in the Lake District?”

What we don’t often get, as readers, is a sense of resolution for these childhood traumas — either for the character or for ourselves. The childhood issues raise their heads from time to time, prompting the protagonist (or antagonist) to take one course of action or another. Then they fade into the background, to be replaced by more immediate concerns and motivations. The story arc may culminate in a satisfying fist-fight, or love scene — possibly both at the same time, depending on the genre — but the inciting incident from childhood is nowhere to be seen.

Coming Home by PD MartinComing Home is PD Martin’s gift to those of us who have followed Sophie from Quantico to Los Angeles, dealing with serial killers, assassins and mysterious cults. We get to see her return to Melbourne, to enjoy the scenes where her long-suffering boyfriend stays with her in her old family home and interacts so charmingly with her parents, and above all to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder and close the door on that formative chapter of Sophie’s life.

This book isn’t as long as the previous books in the series, but it is by far the most personal and affecting. I believe this is partly because it deals directly with the childhood trauma that is so intrinsic to our understanding of Sophie as a character. She struggles to keep herself emotionally distant from the case she is investigating, but we feel her anxiety and the tremendous energy she puts into her work. She has to contend with old rivalries in the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, giving us a glimpse of an earlier, fresher Sophie through their eyes. Her parents play a much larger role in this story, which brings out a side of Sophie we seldom get to enjoy.

Coming Home is a must-read for any PD Martin fans. And if you’re new to PD Martin, go and buy the first in the Sophie Anderson series, Body Count. Go on. I’ll wait. You’ll thank me for it.