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Why, Oh Why?

Kath here. Today’s guest is historical fantasy novelist Jules Watson [1]. You may remember Jules from her interview with valued WU contributor Anna Elliott [2]about writing historical fantasy. Jules kindly returned to WU to provide more inspiration and motivation to writers in the growing historical fantasy market.  Jules’s new book THE RAVEN QUEEN [3], a mystical story set in ancient Ireland, is garnering advanced praise.  Enjoy!

Have you ever clapped a hand to your head when the heroine of the book or movie does something unbelievable, out of character, foolish, or just plain “huh?” 

Writers focus on the “big” elements of plot, character, and description, but something just as important runs a bit more under the radar: motivation. Logic says that every action in a book should provoke a reaction. Everything your characters do should also be driven by a believable motivation (a pre-action?). After all, in childhood books, Spot only ran after Jane’s ball because he liked her patting him afterwards. He was motivated to get something for himself by pleasing Jane. From babyhood, humans are trained to look for reasons for things. That means as readers we look for reasons for things. 

Sometimes we writers get so excited about a brilliant plot twist that we charge in without making sure we have planted sufficient motivations first: in the characters’ back stories, in their personalities, or in previous action sequences. If, without reason, you throw something in that goes against the character traits or story you have already established, it can frustrate the heck out of your readers. 

Of course, you want your characters to be larger than life, especially in genre fiction. If you do need them to act illogically, just make sure they have a good motivation – and if that comes from an emotional base, all the better. Survival, love, freedom, or the wellbeing of society are strong motivations that will make characters do anything, and readers will accept why they do it. 

I really had to focus on motivations in my new book The Raven Queen, based on an ancient Irish myth of the famous Queen Maeve. Irish myths were originally passed on orally. They were eventually written down much later by monks in monasteries, the only literate people around at the time. These monks did not want to promote sensual, powerful pagan women as figures of admiration, so they did a hatchet job on Maeve, portraying her as wildly promiscuous and a brutal war mongerer. Now, I didn’t want to throw out the entire myth – and for the plot to work she had to do some questionable things – but as my heroine she also needed to be sympathetic. The answer lay in motivation. She didn’t do these things because she was mildly rebellious, but because she had suffered in her past. This explains her drive to gain control over her own life, sometimes to the point of blindness. 

So if, for the purposes of your plot, your character needs to commit acts that can seem foolish, reckless, cold, hard, or frustrating, you can get away with it as long as there is a believable motivation for that behavior. 

Now, I am not saying to put everyone’s motivations out there. That could rob your book of tension. But you need to have thought through the motivations for your baddies or goodies, even if you never reveal them. Otherwise, you might lose the thread of their behavior, until their actions don’t make sense. 

My books mix the genres of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure and romance. Although motivations will differ, getting them right is important to every genre. 

Backtrack: create motivation to fit your plot

 The fun of historical fiction is taking a real event and somehow making the actions of your fictional characters fit that event. So invent a character’s back story that gives them the motivation to join that uprising, or depose that king. Do the same with any book – if your plot hinges on a series of particular events, work back from there until you know the motivations of the characters involved in those events. 

In The Raven Queen, Maeve’s enemy Conor has no choice but to go to war, because his warriors are questioning his power. Maeve fights him for emotional reasons of her own. I spend most of the book and a large part of my previous book, The Swan Maiden, planting the motivational “daisy chains” from character to character that drive these enemies to the brink. 

Romantic tiffs need to rock! 

Conflict is the essence of all good fictional romances. A happy couple with no obstacles to overcome does not make for an exciting book. The easiest thing is to have events out of their control break them up. But make sure they are motivated to be kept apart. Family disapproval isn’t going to keep any red-blooded heroine from her man. However, throw in a long-running family feud or issue of honor (Romeo and Juliet), or the fact your heroine’s parents are going to starve to death if she does not marry the rich guy, and you have a juicier conflict, higher stakes, and a better pay-off. 

To raise the stakes even higher, I like adding internal conflicts to my romances. You know how frustrating it is, though, when fictional couples break up because of a simple misunderstanding, and if they just sat down and talked, all would be well? To avoid that, the problems they face must be believable — and you do this with motivations. 

In The Swan Maiden, my heroine Deirdre runs away with the hero, Naisi, to escape her betrothal to an ageing Irish king. But the old king was Naisi’s sworn overlord, and though Naisi loves Deirdre, his guilt for betraying his lord and brother warriors eats away at him, a rift with Deirdre that simple talking cannot fix. She, meanwhile, was imprisoned by the king, and so she can’t stand the idea of being possessed by anyone, which causes the rift on her side. 

Even with fantasy, you need reality

The details of your fantasy or paranormal world are flights of fancy: readers are happy to suspend disbelief in regard to spells, shape shifting, or teleportation. But they do want the human elements to be believable. Would that girl really fall for that guy? Would the heroine really do that dangerous thing, even though she might get killed? It’s great to have kids flying about on broomsticks (don’t we all want to?), but characters — even non-humans! — must still be driven by concerns that appeal to your very human readers. 

Readers want to understand why your characters do the things they do. They want to know why the stakes are high. They don’t want to be dragged out of the wonderful world you have built because your hero did something completely out of left field, or be left asking, “Why, oh why did he do that?