Shelley Widhalm

Character Motivation and Inner Drive

In Character Development, Sociopaths, Writing About Characters on February 15, 2015 at 11:00 am

Motivation is a concept that I find difficult to fully understand in the writing world, or it was until I read Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door.”

Stout, a clinical psychologist, explains in her book, published in 2006, how 4 percent of the population, or one in 25 people, has the mental or personality disorder of being a sociopath.

Sociopaths possess no conscience, making them unable to feel shame, guilt or remorse for their actions or to care about anyone else in their indifference. One of their main characteristics is charm, evidenced by their sexiness, glow, intensity, complexity and spontaneity. They are unable to love another person or connect with other humans in any way individually or as a group. Their emotions are fake, but they will act or do whatever it takes to use, trick, manipulate and dominate. They flatter, they engage in the pity play and they get angry if they don’t get you to bend.

They are motivated by wanting to win, whatever it is they choose to get, obtain or possess, but they never get what they need because they are lacking that quality that makes what they do matter to themselves and to others. Their actions are empty but destructive.

The main or point-of-view characters in a short story or novel need to be motivated, but, unless they are sociopaths, it will be something that improves the self, develops important relationships or does good for others. The sociopath doesn’t care about any of that.

Characters in fiction need to have an inner drive to get what they want (but it may not be what they need, and after trials and tribulations, they will realize they need something other than what they desired). Every action they take will be toward getting this want fulfilled—to find, preserve, replace, create or do something to better things for themselves, their family and friends, or the world.

If the characters try to fill the want without knowing what they actually need, they will feel empty, failing to recognize what they have at stake if they go for the wrong thing. The self-aware characters will learn the difference between their need and what they think they want. They will find their purpose and will transform as a result as they get what they need, representing the full character arc.

After learning about sociopaths, I got the sense that they don’t have this purpose. They have a want, but what they want never gets them what they need because it’s always at the cost of others, and even themselves, because the hole can never be filled. If there is no connection to the self and the world, then everything is directed inward without meaning. And the destruction happens outward.

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