Motivation and Bad Characters

In writing workshops someone is always asking about the motivation of your characters. What’s her motivation here? His motivation isn’t clear. I don’t see what motivates them to make these choices. In fiction, as in real life, people like to be able to understand why someone does what he does. A character who is steady and modest shouldn’t suddenly climb on a bar and do a striptease without a clear inciting incident and, probably, a pile of escalating pressures.

That’s why people on both sides of the aisle are so freaked out by the current administration’s sudden decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. When a character like our president repeatedly praises a man for the very actions that he uses as justification to fire him, it’s hard to understand the motivation. It’s certainly easier to understand the motivation when you consider that the man in question is leading an investigation that might result in some very bad consequences for the current president. That’s the motivation! is what a writing worskshopper would say. Why confuse it with this obvious attempt at deception? It makes him look kind of stupid. Do you want him to seem stupid?

Add to that the oddly worded termination memo in which the president says: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

I’ve taught middle school students with enough self-awareness to understand that you don’t point to the thing you’re trying to conceal while you’re trying to conceal it. Even the most formulaic fictional characters know better than to stare at the box with the dead body in it while the detectives are circling. It is not a smart move.

Do you want him to seem stupid?

The trio of memos that set this firing in motion would never fly in a decent piece of fiction. In most places it wouldn’t fly in real life. I’ve worked in offices and I’ve worked for crappy bosses. I know all about creating a paper trail to cover your ass. Not even the worst of my bad bosses would have asked for a memo to fire someone and then acted upon it on the same day while the person being fired isn’t even in the office. It’s irrational and betrays a desperation that is indefensible.

This character doesn’t ring true. I can’t follow his motivation here.

The events of this week would never make it through a fiction workshop. Everyone would encourage the author to slow down and take some time for character development. But this isn’t fiction; this is real life. We can’t rewrite this president into a three-dimensional character. We’re stuck with the ugly cartoon version, at least for now. I do not believe it will last. The desperation that led to the firing of Comey, and Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara will someday lead to the downfall of the president. I could be wrong, but if I were writing this novel I would be hard-pressed to think of another believable outcome. I certainly can’t imagine one more satisfying, though I know the risks of reveling in schadenfreude. (Side note: If you never seen Avenue Q, I implore you to listen to the Schadenfreude song from the soundtrack. My husband and I sing this all the time.)

Of course we could unravel our current president’s motivations and still be stuck with terrible men leading the country. In fact, it seems likely. That’s the kicker that sets real life apart from fiction. In fiction, you aren’t promised a happy ending. In real life, you aren’t promised an ending. One story bleeds into the next and we keep turning the pages until we die.

And that’s about as optimistic as I’m gonna get this week. I think my motivation is perfectly clear.



Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson