Three Layers of Motivation

To portray a character on stage, the actor has to understand their subtext. Right? Seems like a given. But the same is true today for authors and their characters. But, subtext? All that heavy mass of fear and need and overweening desire, the baggage that every character brings into every scene. Once you start to dig it can get pretty messy. So, how do you get to Dosteovskythe root of the matter? I suggest this shortcut.

A post-Dostoevskian character, that is to say, a character whose inner psychology can and should be known, according to critic, James Wood, is driven by three layers of motives. First there is the announced motive, his given justifications for murdering the old woman. In plotted stories, this Vollmann_William T 2006would be the conscious desire that sets in motion a quest toward a goal.

The second layer, “those strange inversions wherein love turns into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisoned, sickly love,” are the unconscious motives, aka the contradictory or repressed desires. Witness Roskalnikov’s need to confess his crime to the police and to the prostitute. He wants to finally rip off the public mask and show the man behind it.

The third layer lies deeper and motivates action even when the character is unaware of it. “They want to reveal the dark shamelessness of their souls, and so, without knowing quite why, they act ‘scandalously’ so that people ‘better’ than they can judge them for the wretches they are.” In other words, they misbehave, they cry out for their baseness to be known so that they will not carry alone their dark secrets. We see a fine example of this in the character of Seamus in “Red Hands,” a William T. Vollman short story. A former IRA operative who escapes a London prison and many years later surfaces in New York, is anxious to finally tell his story. That story includes have killed a young British guard in order to break out of prison and that includes having been involved in blowing up a department store. Of Seamus, Vollman writes: “It is sometimes a hard thing to be a man and stand by the thing that you have done. He would have liked someone to take him out of the wind, but no one is supreme enough to do it; so… he told his tale again, searching each man’s face to see if he was the wise man that every man needs, but nobody was…”

Three layers. The announced motive. The repressed desire or unconscious motive. And the deep dark shamelessness of the soul. Know this and make your characters carry their burden and they will escape the trap of bland blameless  superficiality that is like a virus, ready to cheapen your characters, a virus that infects so much of today’s fiction.


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