I was watching The Girl the other night and something Hitchcock said to Tippi Hedren has stuck with me. I can’t stop thinking about, even days later, and how it plays to the vanity of Hitchcock (specifically) and writers (in general).
In the scene where Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) and Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones) discuss her character’s motivation for going into the attic alone, knowing there would be birds there, (they were filming The Birds at the time). Hedren asked, “Why would Melanie go into that attic all alone?”
Hitchcock replied, “Because I want her to.”
Because I want her to.
While a cinematic genius like Hitchcock might be able to get away with that, for a lowly novelist like me, writing takes a bit more work. Just because I want my characters to do something, doesn’t mean I should make them do it. There has to be a reason my characters do and say the things they do and it's my job to give them that reason.
It's called motivation.
Motivation is what a writer weaves throughout a plot to bind it tight. Motivation is what makes even the implausible seem possible. Even the most unlikely seem inevitable. But what is it? A traumatic past? Money? Love? Revenge?
I can’t simply decide I want my protagonist to rob a bank or rescue a bunch of kids from a burning orphanage. There has to be a trigger that sets them on the course. Are they days away from losing their home to foreclosure? Is their child in need of a lifesaving operation and the insurance company refuses to pay. Did they lose a loved one to a fire? Did they grow up in an orphanage themselves?
These are seeds from which future action grow and if you want your novel to feel real, they must be planted. From these seeds should sprout a chain of events, fed on emotion and tended by circumstance, that will inevitably lead your protagonist to a place where the life-altering decisions they make are the only ones that make sense.
Look at it this way...
If a novel is a vehicle, then motivation is the fuel in the tank. It makes us move and takes us places. Maybe even places we never had any intention of going. Place we don't want to be... places we have a hard time visiting. If there's no gas in the tank, that vehicle isn't moving. But if you put the wrong kind of fuel in the tank then your vehicle breaks down completely. It becomes an undriveable hunk of crap that noboby wants to drive. Or read.
When Hitchcock sent his character into that attic full of live, pissed off birds, he wasn’t sending the character—he was sending Hedren. He allowed his personal motivation to color the actions of his character… and in doing so, changed the movie completely.
It was no longer about the story itself at all. It was about Hitchcock’s desire to punish Hedren for finding him repulsive. In punishing Hedren, Hitchcock gave as a peek behind the curtain. Even though we may not have known it at the time, we saw a writer at work and that is something your reader should never see.
The stories we write should be seamless. Our characters should be fully formed, with their own set of experiences that give their choices weight and purpose and the conclusion those choices lead them to should seem inevitable.
Anything less would be a cheat—to myself as a writer and to people I write for.