Explaining a character’s motivations by telling a little story

Readers – and character’s motivations

We are all amateur psychologists – we have to be, in order to make what sense we do of our world.

It is not a misplaced behavior – humans have similar genetic equipment, and a similar evolution, even into cultures that are quite different – and the basic steps for any living thing (birth, growth, reproduction (maybe), and death) are always present in our minds.

This is extremely helpful for a writer – but has to be used with a light hand. We cannot go into exhaustive detail about characters, much less EVERY character, so instead we have to find the precise details that will evoke, for most of our target readers, the ability to fill in with their own life experience.

So, when I mention an alcoholic father, and a problem of some kind, readers jump into the breach to imagine the homelife of the character, the broken promises, threats or possibilities of violence, problems with money and jobs. If I need most of that, but want a particular twist, I would add some telling detail such as ‘he was always a HAPPY drunk’ – and the alcoholic father stereotype takes a twist that puts a little spin on the character – and the standard set of problems is mitigated somewhat because happy drunks are less likely to also be violent abusive drunks.

Short story within a story

A particularly effective way to do even such a tiny infodump is one character telling another a little story that explains why someone else does something – and making that little story entertaining in and of itself.

Think of it as a writing exercise: one paragraph, a number of sentences not to exceed three or four, a central idea relevant to the current plot point, and a chance to reveal a bit about the teller – and the listener – as well.

A lot to ask of a quick foray into backstory – but also an exceedingly easy way for the reader to absorb what is necessary to further the story. And another anchor point into the larger reality of the ‘world’ the story is set into, because the reader can always say ‘I’d like to hear more of the story of how…’ and it creates another reason for reading further.

Where and when to tell a story

Doing this at the right point in the story motivates later behavior by the character: you are priming the reader to think ‘I should have seen THAT one coming’ when you spring the action you are trying to motivate. If you’re a writer, you get to look prescient – when all you really have to do is go back to a chapter and insert a little story at a convenient place.

This has to be done at the earliest place it is relevant – but as late as possible in the story so the reader has less of a chance to forget the information. It can even be done in steps – a little bit more and some new information at each placement will make the eventual revelation which uses the setup seem almost Fate.

A short example

From Pride’s Children, Chapter 7 (NOTE: ‘the girl’ is a misguided teenager who sneaked into Andrew’s trailer and his bed):

…He would never agree; maybe he would feel better because she offered. That would suffice. “Don’t be too hard on her, the girl.”

“What?”

“When I was her age I had a crush on Paul McCartney.” She felt heat over her cheekbones, didn’t trust herself to meet his gaze. “Of course every girl my age did, but I didn’t know that. I was a solitary child, interested in books, not rock-and-roll. But their music played on the radio, even I heard it. I was madly in love, puppy love, the worst kind. He was singing only to me.” She risked a glance.

“And?” His eyes were kind.

“Well, I realized it would never work.”

“Why?”

“Because I had nothing to offer him.” And I’m completely over that, aren’t I? “There must be reciprocity in relationships.” She picked up a twig with two leaves on it. Which is why you and I can never be more than friends.

What do you think of this technique as a way to sneak in backstory? Do you spot it when you read? Do you use it when you write?

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2 thoughts on “Explaining a character’s motivations by telling a little story

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Exactly – that was one of the many little stories I tell you – on a long journey. Humans like to hear stories about how someone expected one thing and got another, how their parents met, or why they were named after a particular friend.

      You get the full story when you add up all the pieces, each weighted by the veracity of the teller, to see, at the end, what you believe. All part of the writer’s work to keep the reader entertained.

      Basically, my question was whether you, as a reader, find it annoying when you have to slog through a big piece of backstory – explanation by the writer. As reader, I don’t like it when the story stops while I get a long description of the character, plus a history back to his childhood. I want it to be more like when I meet a person, and over time find out more and more about them.

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