How character motivations create meaning

In my teaching I focus a lot on character, plot, and setting. These are the tools with which authors build stories. But there’s another we shouldn’t overlook: theme. Readers read stories not merely to find out what happens but to understand what it means. I often talk about the importance of plot events having causality—they should happen for a reason. It is through those reasons that meaning can be found.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live shows us one type of meaning, perhaps that people will do things they wouldn’t have thought possible to save the people they love.

That Sam steals the medicine from the pharmacy because he loves his son and wants him to live and can’t afford the medicine because he lost his job shows us another type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because he lost his health insurance when he lost his job shows us a slightly different type of meaning.

That Sam steals the medicine . . . because greedy pharmaceutical companies charge astronomical fees for medicines shows us still another type of meaning.

When authors are not paying enough attention to the reasons—the why of the characters—they risk shortchanging meaning, regardless of how well they’ve explored plot, character, and setting.

Many times authors don’t set out to explore a specific theme or to convey a specific message, but as an observer of the ms, you will often have enough distance from the work to be able to pick out some connected threads that seem to underlie the story events. You can help the author surface these threads, highlighting the meaning they give to the story. Often you can help the author strengthen or tweak a character motivation in order to create more meaning.

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