I used to do a lot of acting. I went to an arts high school, my major being drama. Acting isn’t a very big part of my life anymore, but the things I learned in drama class were a massive influence on my development as a writer. Writing is similar to acting, in that you have to connect to the characters you’re creating and that usually involves putting yourself in their shoes. This can be difficult. Motives aren’t always easy to decipher, and I there are times where I just plain don’t know why a character is doing something. Times like these, I remember drama class.
My teacher had this method. It was an all-encompassing method that she gave to us in answer to any issue we had with motives or tactics. What was it?
Find the love in the scene.
The man loves the woman, and the woman is indifferent. Why is she indifferent? She doesn’t love him back.
Boring! Negation doesn’t leave a very good impression compared to agreement. In acting, the first rule of improvisation is that you’re not allowed to negate what your partner says. Granted, a woman’s love isn’t improv, but the point here is that negation isn’t very interesting. It can’t go anywhere. If she doesn’t love him, then who does she love? Someone else? Her work? Her independence? A flat no, without reason, will stagnate. Find the love in her life, and suddenly her reasons for not loving him are clear, and they create deeper conflict that you can develop.
Since conflict makes the story-world go round, it's fortunate that love is the kind of emotion that is strong enough to start wars. Somebody flying in the face of your love is a serious offense and if it’s bad enough, it will move you to defend your love with everything you have. Characters in a novel are no different. If you find yourself struggling with a plot hole made from a character’s lack of reasons for action, find the love in the scene. If they’re reacting with an anger or hate you can’t explain, all you have to do is consider why they might be angry or have hate. Which is so obvious, I know, but the simplest way of doing that is having the characters love the opposite of what they hate and building the scene around that. If you have a girl glaring at a guy for tossing her a wolf whistle, don’t make it about how she hates bigotry. Make it about how much she loves equality and respect. After that, the hate comes naturally, and its depth is exponential.
Another reason love is so damn important is because from love you can create nearly every kind of relationship or reaction possible. There are three big questions when it comes to acting that you have to ask yourself while developing your character: What does the character want? Why did the character move? Why did the character say that? It’s not a coincidence that those are the exact same questions that I ask myself when I’m struggling with a scene. In the end, the most effective method of answering them is by figuring out what they love. Their loves can be numerous. They can extend away from people and reach into the realm of both abstract and concrete concepts: I love humour, I love music, I love freedom. Take those away from me, and I will fight you. Give them to me and I will appreciate you. Tease me with them, string me along, and I’ll follow, because just the glimpse of those things, just the possibility of possessing them to a greater extent, will seduce me into a state of obedience.
Suddenly, I have three relationships, all three extremely different, all built around what I love, all with perfectly explicable motives that are true to myself and make me consistent about being who I am.
Consider this with your characters, and clarity will follow.
Find the love in the scene.