Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why ask why? Because we need to know why. But, why?

Why did he go on that rampage? Why are they robbing THAT bank? What was the reason behind taking the victim's worthless bracelet? Why, why, and more why's. Everyone does whatever it is that they do for a reason, including criminals. But, do they always have a specific reason for acting in a certain way or for commiting a crime in a specific way. And, why did they decide to commit that particular crime in the first place? These are questions I, as a reader, frequently ask of the material I'm reading, and it got me thinking. Do readers, in general, seek a motive for the characters' acts and/or behavior, or do they simply accept them, incorporate them into the story, and keep moving? Let's talk about that.

One movie I've always loved is the first in the Die Hard movie series. Our wonderful villain, Hans, is trying to convince the executive on scene, Mr. Takagi, to provide him with the code for one of the vault's seven locks. Mr. Takagi makes a comment alluding to the fact that Hans and his crew are 'terrorists' and Hans laughs and asks what made him think they were terrorists? Mr. Takagi is stunned and his response is along the lines of 'you mean, this is just about money'? I always found it interesting that the fact that they were only after bearer bonds ($640 million to be exact) surprised him. Then again, Hans did deliberately try to mislead the police into believing they were holding those hostages in the high-rise pending the release of various political prisoners, so perhaps Mr. Takagi just picked up on that. But, my point is, he really seems to find it hard to believe that they were doing all of that and going through all of that just for money. I personally thought it brilliant. They shut down everything, locked everyone out that was out and locked everyone in that was already in, had someone to figure out how to open the locks to the vault and, in the end, knew that cutting off the power would break the final seal. Of course, they hadn't counted on Bruce Willis being in the building with them, and well, that was their mistake. But, getting back to motive, theirs was the desire for money. They didn't care who they had to go around, over, or through to get it. It was all about the bearer bonds. Simple enough. No deep-seated psychological issues with their mothers, no childhood conflicts with their peers, no backstory about an aunt by marriage twice-removed who collected decorative hairpins, no contributing factors. Just one solid, unshakeable focus--one driving force--one motive: money.

What I enjoy most of all about this is its simplicity. Whether you've seen this film, or whether you like it or not is really not relevant here. You have to admire the fact that motive is kept so simple and basic. There's no looks back into their childhoods or disillusioned youths. All they want is money. Although, sometimes motives that stem from various factors that have built up over the years can be extremely interesting as well. Take serial killers, for instance.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Serial killers? Not again. Sorry, but I, myself, happen to enjoy the complexities of a serial killer. Their motives and methods always run deep and are dark and sinister. I enjoy reading, and writing about, their personal lives, the way they hunt, how they choose who to hunt, and... Well, you get my drift. There's nothing basic or simple about a serial killer, or at least, there shouldn't be, and I think that's why they interest me. Mass murderers and/or thrill killer type characters can be just as complex at times. Of course, there are always the leads from the film, Natural Born Killers. Not a lot of deep motivation there, I don't think. But, that's a whole other ballgame. I will say though, I really like that film. It's strange and the characters are all bizarre and you hate them all and yet, you can't turn away. But, onward and upward.

Like I've said, I like a motive--a reason--a driving force behind a criminal. One caution here though. Make sure when you write them, do not go overboard with that. Don't include little snippets of their dreams and childhood heartbreaks on every other page. Don't go on and on about how their mother's re-marriage warped their perception of the world as they knew it. And, I don't even want to hear about the teddy bear that got tossed by mistake when the family moved. While that might be used to explain why the reunion was turned into a massacre, I don't believe I'd stick with the story long enough to reach that chapter.

Give me motives and reasons, let me get to know your characters as people and as criminals. Go back if you need to, but don't let all that bog you down. Stick relevent tidbits in here and there, but keep your story moving. Oh, and only tell me things once. Trust me, I'll remember. Nothing turns me off a story quicker than reading the exact same sentence twelve times on twelve different pages. Oh yeah. It's happened. I won't name any names, but you know who you are. Don't do that!

I'm going to close with mention of one character for which no motives or reasons were ever necessary. He was so brilliantly written, and portrayed, that it never mattered. No matter how many times you see this particular film, you never care why. You know why all the other characters do what they do, and it's important that you do. It helps you to get to know them better, and believe me, they are worth getting to know. But there is the one guy...

I'm speaking, of course, of the film, No Country for Old Men, and the character I'm referring to is our cold-blooded killer, Anton. You know he's after the money from the deal that went bad, but who does he work for? Does he work for either side? Who does he answer to? Getting to know him for just a couple of minutes makes one wonder if he would ever be in a position to answer to anyone. This is a man who is colder than cold--professional though and even honorable, in his own sinister way. But, reason? Motive? Who can say. Is it his job? Who cares. He's a terrifying persona--calm and methodical and oh so deadly if he feels you are in his way. This is one case of a character where no motive and/or reason is offered.

This is the only occasion I can recall where reasons behind a character's behavior don't seem relevent. Really, the only one. As a writer, I always try to get something in there to let you see the world through my criminal's eyes--let you get inside his/her head so you understand. As a reader, I want writers to do the same for me. It seems to make them, and the story, more real for me. How about you?

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