One of the toughest jobs for a fiction writer is describing human motivation.

A story works best when the motives of its characters are presented as strong and clear. However, the matrix of causes that drive human behavior in real life commonly defy easy description.

Reality, plus we featherless bipeds who do our damndest to inhabit it, are enormously complex phenomena. One might seek to play Diogenes, raise a lamp and wander the streets, to see if you can detect some essentially honest perspective. However, you’ll soon stumble over seriously complicating factors—like those occasions when we try to conceal our true motivations from others and ourselves.

Whereupon you end up with a Gordian Knot of human urges nearly impossible to disentange or dissect in lucid prose. Certainly, not with any degree of verisimiltude. 

Your literary trick then must be appearing to describe the full array of motivations, whilst actually you achieve no such thing. If you can convince a reader to buy that largely vacant bill of goods, voila! You’re home free.


Regular readers of this newsletter know that I like to deploy anecdotes from my long stint as an outdoors writer. Narrative bits harvested from the wilds give me ways to underscore a point. But I don’t offer them as metaphors; they’re glimpses into life.

Here, I’d like to cite my flight on a sailplane, aloft over the Siskiyou and Cascade mountains of Northern California. 

A prop plane tugged our two-seat glider high up into the sky, hauling us up from a small rural strip rather grandly named the Montague-Yreka Airport. Once we rose to a skein of thin clouds, the pilot riding behind me told me to reach down and yank a handle between my feet.


With the tow line released, our glider flexed its wings. We were transformed into a soaring organism. True, our wings were made of alloy spars and fabric, not feather and bone, but the pilot still had to study the landscape below, to sense the air currents and react to them, just as any high-flying bird might.

As we careened far above the mottled terrain of Klamath National Forest, we even joined a golden eagle dancing in the same updraft to gain her own elevation. She seemed untroubled by our presence in the gyre, her wings held as steady as our own as we spiraled on opposite sides of an invisible escalator. 

The whole experience fascinated. Especially riveting was the  problem of returning to our airstrip only using power we might gain from gravity and the movement of air.

This was a genuine game of 3-D chess, its import underlined by the prospect of making a forced landing out on some rural logging road due to any sequence of bad moves. But my pilot, a former F-16 jockey for the Air National Guard, seemed fully up to his task.

“I used to go to my throttle and just ram through all this stuff,” he told me. “It’s much more fun now for me to figure out the topography of the sky, find all the good air currents, then use them to fly.”

And this is the sort of thing we must all do, each and every day, over the course of normal life. We must consort with the barely visible, sort through many things only faintly sensed, in order to make our way. You either score some notion of a route to your goals, or fail and fall bravely amid your search. If you land safe and sound, you score a chance to try again.


And one more relevant tale…

My heyday of sea kayak racing lasted about a dozen years. I wound up earning a fat bouquet of ribbons; many colored in that sweet hue of blue. An important factor for achieving victory was maintaining high aerobic fitness. A race demanded I go as hard as I could, and sometimes even a tad harder, for about an hour-and-a-half. Since I enjoy physical exertion, I saw all of that as good clean fun.

Yet I took even more delight in composing a tailor-made strategy well ahead of the event. Here are steps in that process. 

I’d figure out what tides and currents would occur at race time, then hunt through charts and tide tables to find some day preceding the race that appeared to be quite similar. Then I could practice in advance to fit my tactics to conditions.

I’d plan to put my craft into favorable jets of current to bolster my speed. I’d avoid battling contrary jets that might subtract velocity by locating “sneaker” routes, such as: ducking beneath piers and weaving between the pilings. I’d even take a paint can with me on scouting trips and spray a few dots on this shadowy infrastructure to mark my best entrance and exit points.

I’d identify the paddlers and boats that seemed marginally faster than me (especially at the start of a race) and scheme to draft them in order to budget my energy for the final sprint to the finish. I also developed techniques to shake off any competitors who tried to draft me.

I did all I could to lighten my overall kit, including cutting hunks of foam out of my PFD (life vest), then sewing it back up so it looked legit to race officials. I experimented with various energy drinks until I found one with the correct degree of kick.

I put tunes with driving rhythms into mixtapes I could play on a waterproof Walkman to keep my pace up.

Days before an event, I’d strategize on nutrition so that I’d arrive at a starting line with full energy but empty bowels—thus able to focus on the matter at hand. (Nothing’s sadder than sitting on a starting line, charged up and ready to rumble, only have your gut inform you via another type of rumbling that there must be a change of plans.)

I invested all of this time and energy to bolster my chance of toting home a flimsy strip of blue fabric about eight inches long. In retrospect, it seems a bit silly to dump a truckload of forethought and effort into such an obscure recreation. However, possessed by an urge to triumph, I drove myself at it wholeheartedly.


Regarding human motivation, how much more effort and thought do we strive to put into the more meaningful pursuits of life? In our schemes to be successful at romance? To edge out a competitor in a profession? To survive the predations of a brutal boss, perhaps even maneuver to replace him? To launch a new life in some alien setting?

Now, suppose you’re a detective, assigned to track down a killer before he slays again. How does one graft a chore like that onto a supposedly normal existence?

Or say, you’re a criminal, yearning to pull off the perfect heist. And you plot this job at the same time that you struggle to keep the rest of your life going, your friendships more-or-less intact, your kids reasonably content, your diet satisfactory, your wife interested in the relationship, your addictions under control, your car running, the cops off your trail, and all the while you cultivate an air of nonchalance and spew a smokescreen of sublime innocence.

See what I mean?

Now, envision a writer tasked with cramming all that stuff into a story. Said writer might not even reach his second act before heaping up an impossible (meaning unpublishable) word count. Not to mention, the clear-and-present danger of transforming his plot thread into a haystack needle that duly vanishes under the jumble of all of his other narrative strands.

Alas, alack, and fie. Such a tragic situation, both for him and his disoriented reader…


What’s the solution, here?

First, DO make your characters’ main motivations plain and strong—I mean, those motives that power the plot. Next, render your character descriptions complex, so his or her sprawling array of other motivations become implied.

A secret is to have your character’s disparate elements well-integrated, even if some parts seem contradictory. Convince the readers that you and they are dealing with the simulacrum of a complicated human creature, the sort of being that’s already known to them, the sort of being that they themselves are. That achieved, their imaginations may leap to the task and proceed to conjure much of the necessary rest.

Your pointers or “tells” can lie buried in mundane details, of dress, habit, speech, posture, facial expression, and interactions with others. In fact, productive fun can be had by asking some characters to try to figure out what makes the other characters tick.

“Your friend Robert, he’s quite punctual, yes. But is the man a wall clock—or a timebomb?”

Impress readers from the get-go, make them think that they’re in the hands of a good storyteller, and in short order, they’ll want the story to succeed nearly as much as you do.

Venerated ancestors of the scribbling craft dubbed this highly useful force, “the willing  suspension of disbelief.” Recruit this ally to fight for your side, early on. 

Then, attracted to your characters—and therefore pulled into their situations—readers should ideally feel lured to backfill any gap in apparent motive by investing your tale with visualizations of their own.