May 18, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On Character Motivation

In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare’s characters are compelling because he makes their motivations purposefully unclear in order to create greater psychological complexity: “Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.”

This idea clearly challenges one of the traditional notes almost every writer receives in a writing workshop, that readers didn’t fully understand what a character wanted and so the writer should clarify those motivations. Add a backstory that explains why this character decided to leave their husband. Tell us about their mother and father so we can understand why they’re so withdrawn. Give them some past trauma to explain their present depression. Alongside such notes, we’re also taught that a character’s want should drive the story’s plot. And so, writers end up clarifying their characters’ desires with such precision that their narratives becomes perfect structures of cause and effect—this character left her husband because her mother never left her abusive father. This character is withdrawn because his mother never told him she loved him. This character is depressed because her brother drowned when she was young. It’s Freud reduced to teleology, and it cheapens the complex reality of human experience.

In its first season, HBO’s Westworld pokes fun at the notion of simple backstories as explanations for character motivation. The show is of course a very obvious metaphor for the effect of fictional narratives on an audience, and the “hosts” or robots are often programmed with specific backstories that motivate their very clear and simple character goals—and at one point, when a character we were told was human ends up having secretly been a host too, we realize that his convenient and very obviously overly-simplistic backstory (the tragic death of his child) was meant to be a very obvious hint. Even the characters who are fully human sometimes make meta jokes about their own motivations. When one character is surprised at another’s knowledge of astronomy, he quips that maybe it’s part of his backstory.

In later seasons, as the hosts gain sentience, Westworld argues for a more complex understanding of character motivation, one informed not by a simple backstories, but instead by literally all of a person’s memories, intricately fitted together in a complex psychological structure. In written fiction, the same idea should apply. The search for an easy answer to a character’s motivations is compelling because it makes a story feel complete and comfortable. But comfortable stories don’t affect us as good literature should. We don’t stay up thinking about why a character did what they did. After all, scholars today continue to debate Hamlet’s hesitation not because it’s obvious, but because there are many compelling explanations—perhaps he was too much the intellectual because of his education at Wittenberg, or perhaps he loved his mother in that Oedipal way, or perhaps he was cowardly or depressed or simply fat.

The case of Iago provides the most interesting example of the power of “strategic opacity.” Most people today would agree that Iago’s hatred of Othello, the “Moor,” is motivated by race. But still, in the text itself, this racism is never explicit, and if it were, it would make Iago far less frightening. Explicit racism obviously does exist in the world, but more insidious is the subtle racism hidden behind other possible motives—jealousy, sexual attraction, or a larger desire for God-like control. Thus, we have to read Iago’s motivations in the play’s subtext. And by the end when Othello and Desdemona (and several others) lie dead, we’re not left with a tidy, comforting explanation, but instead with a chilling uncertainty that is far more affecting. “Demand me nothing,” Iago says in his final line of the play. “What you know, you know.” It is, as Greenblatt writes “a blank refusal to supply the missing motive.”