One of the trickiest challenges a writer faces is creating interesting, three-dimensional characters that are compelling and believable, while still retaining the capacity to surprise the audience.
If a character is predictable, he or she is, by default, boring. However, even if a character’s choices stun us, we should still be able to accept the motivation for those decisions and accept them as “something he would do.”
Mastering motivation becomes slightly easier if we take a page from reality and throw logic out the window. Once we insist that our characters have a logical basis for their actions, we have taken a step down the slippery slope that leads to clichéd, uninspired prose.
In real life, humans have an infinite capacity for illogical behavior. Often, our actions make sense only to us -- leaving those who know us, love us, and have a vested interest in our continued health, wealth, and well-being scratching their heads in wonder over our perceived stupidity. If we writers can apply this to our character development, we will have tapped into something deeply “human.” Besides, what can be infuriating in the real world can become a tool of vast entertainment potential in the world we create.
Consider, for instance, Indiana Jones' fear of snakes. Or Louise's refusal to set foot in Texas, in "Thelma and Louise." How about Hercule Poirot's fastidiousness? Or Sherlock Holmes' superiority complex balanced with his addiction issues? Illogical? Perhaps. But the lack of rational thought doesn't negate the powerful forces that motivate the characters and make them memorable.
If you find that your characters are as flat as the screen (or the paper) they're written on, consider taking a side road away from Logic. Explore the myriad possibilities of Motivation instead.
Maybe a character idolizes her marriage, but not her husband... Maybe one can't bear to be told "no..." Perhaps a character equates advice with control... Or perhaps a son is terrified of following in his father's footsteps...
Feel free to borrow heavily from real life. Choose an irrational behavior that perplexes you, saddle a character with it, and see where it takes him. You might discover that it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, gives a new dimension to that character's interactions with others, and makes that character come alive.
Enjoy discovering where Motivation leads!