In the last few years, I’ve seen several of my favorite TV shows cancelled. I was sad to see them go, but for different reason. One of those reasons was motivation – the driving force behind the main characters. Motivation killed one of my favorite shows, and it became a phenomenal teaching tool to demonstrate why character motivation matters.
I am, of course, talking about Castle. Rick Castle, a New York Times best-selling author, needs inspiration after killing off his popular leading man. Castle finds that inspiration in Kate Beckett, a New York City detective. From the first few episodes, character motivations drive the show: Castle needs story ideas. Beckett’s a cop because she’s still trying to find out who murdered her mother.
Throughout the series, Castle’s motivation changes – he starts writing best-selling novels again, but he doesn’t want to be away from Beckett, so he finds ways to stay at the precinct. Beckett keeps searching for her mom’s killer. She’s incapable of committing to anyone emotionally because of the insatiable need to find the killer. Perfect! Instant tension – Castle wants Beckett, Beckett wants justice.
But then Castle and Beckett fall in love and get married. And they finally find Beckett’s mom’s killer. Their deepest desires have come to fruition. The tension is gone. Now what?
Ideally, it would have been the perfect opportunity to watch the characters as they continued to move forward. Instead, some of Beckett’s coworkers are killed and only she can stop them and the only way to do that is to … leave Castle. And now that Castle has a new series of best-selling books, it’s only obvious that he should … become a private investigator.
Not only do their motivations for those actions not quite make sense, but the tension felt forced. There are a million reasons a married couple might split up (I’ve been married more than a decade – I’ve been tempted to change the locks more than once!), but Beckett’s decision to leave her husband for the sake of people she worked with for only one year doesn’t line up with the kind of devotion she poured into her mother’s case. To put it plainly: I didn’t buy her motivation. As for Castle, he’s a millionaire author – a creative genius – yet the only way he can think of to spend more time with his wife is to give up his million-dollar gig for investigating. Something doesn’t fit.
Strong and Steady
Now let’s consider another long-running TV show: Bones.
FBI agent Seely Booth and forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan work together to solve crimes. Two successful, attractive people, a low-level sexual tension simmers throughout the series, but it’s never on the front burner. When it does become a main plot point, Booth pursues Brennan (motivation – he loves her), while Brennan holds back (motivation – her scientific mind doesn’t believe in monogamy or love).
After tragedy strikes, however, Booth and Brennan come together and end up starting a family. Booth’s motivation stays the same – he loves Brennan and continues to pursue her. Brennan’s motivation evolves – science still drives her, but she can’t deny her feelings for Booth and their children. The consummate scientist, her relationship with Booth becomes personal and experimental.
Unlike Castle, where the character’s motivations and the ensuing conflict came out of nowhere in an unbelievable way, Booth’s and Brennan’s motivations didn’t change much. The conflicts, however, just kept coming:
- Booth proposes to Brennan, challenging her beliefs about marriage and families.
- Booth and Brennan try to blend parenting styles.
- Brennan gets pregnant again.
There was no reason to change the character’s personalities by changing their core motivations – the writers of Bones stayed true to their characters and, instead, kept throwing complications at them.
Why Does It Matter?
Both of these shows have now been cancelled, so motivation didn’t really matter, did it?
Yeah, it did. To this day I remember Castle as a great show … for a few seasons. Then it concluded in the middle of a storyline with an awkward ending (not to mention a criminal enterprise that is, apparently, still wreaking havoc in NYC). Bones, however, created a sentimental season that wrapped up every character’s storyline. Sure, there were some silly episodes, but viewers got to see what happened to all of their favorite characters, leaving everyone with closure.
Why Should a Novelist Care?
Your character’s motivations matter!
When you’re not true to your characters, you end up with a mess like Castle. When you know your characters, however, and have created detailed goals, motivations, and conflicts, you’ll create Bones-like characters that your readers will remember fondly.
What are some of your favorite characters? What do you remember about them?