Episode 135: Motivated by Survival

On February 27th, Kasie and Rex

Theme for the day

Character Motivation: Survival


  • Character Motivation Series
  • What we mean by “Survival” as a motivation
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Link to podcast

Segment 1

We can start with this blog that uses GRAILS as an acronym for character motivation. How clever is that:

G — Greed

R — Revenge

A — Acceptance

I — Identity

L — Love

S — Survival

Moreover, why does character motivation matter? If you’re bored with a story, if you’re finding it hard to get engaged, it may because the character’s motivation isn’t clear. Without their motivation to drive not only them but you, the reader, through to the conclusion, a story can feel flat.

How can writers re-invent the same six motivations over and over? Just consider these different takes:

  • Scarlett O’Hara’s greed versus Ebenezer Scrooge — both are born out of poverty but Scarlett is indulgent, undisciplined, and conniving; Scrooge is miserly and a loner. Both alienate others but in very different ways.
  • Harry Potter’s revenge versus the Count of Monte Cristo — both want to visit hurt upon the people who hurt them, but Harry is a hero for vanquishing a villain, Edmond could be read as obsessed with ruining the men who ruined him. Unhealthy but not without merit.
  • Auggie, a 10-year-old with a facial deformity desires belonging and acceptance in Wonder; he wins others over with a positive attitude, humor, and loyalty to his friends. Contrast that with Jay Gatsby’s desire for acceptance which has him tossing silk shirts all over the place.
  • Liesel, the main character in The Book Thief is working vigilantly to make sense of the Nazi occupiers’ narrow definitions of identity, like Jo Jo Rabbit, she questions the validity of labels related to religion, race, etc. Contrast that with Katniss Everdeen’s attempts at survival somehow proving heroic; who is she, really? The mockingjay – a symbol of resistance and rebellion? Or a teenaged girl in a love triangle?
  • Finally, Survival. It’s on this last theme we are going to center today’s episode so let’s give two examples of very, very different takes on Survival:
    • Fahrenheit 451’s Montag is towing the line — status quo, just do your job and you’ll stay out of trouble. He’s forced out of this comfort zone and as the stakes get higher, must decide how much he’s willing to risk.
    • Then there’s Pi — the boy stranded for 227 days on a life raft with a bengal tiger in Life of Pi. That’s actual survival – not intellectual, metaphorical, or best-of-humanity survival, that’s maybe I’ll eat you tomorrow, little boy, survival.

But first, housekeeping:

South Carolina Writers Association finishes the In Love sprint in our midday sessions this week. We’ll be visiting with Barbara Evers, YA novelist and workshop presenter on “The Perfect Pitch”  — Tuesday at noon. Register for this free and open-to-the-public event on myscwa.org 

The Writing Conversations series is brought to you by SCWA and made possible by the South Carolina Humanities.

Segment 2

Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Check us out, dudes! Today we premiere our second Featured Author Interview with Patron CJ Heigelmann. CJ’s debut novel An Uncommon Folk Rhapsody is an ambitious Civil War saga stretching multiple generations in one family. His second book, Crooked Fences, is a deep dive into PTSD, military-to-civilian life transitions, and a specific character’s struggle with his own racism and bias. Buy the books here.

Thanks to our patrons who continue to support the show and our efforts to bring writing craft lessons to the airwaves. If you’re ready to support the show, go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and join at the $5, $10, or $18 level to get access to behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive courses, and promotional work like Profile Pages and author interviews on the YouTube channel.

So I found this awesome list of Survival novels and I think we could fill the whole show just talking about these books, but instead I’ll share the list and we’ll talk about the different types of survival in each, okay? We used this list of conflicts in our Literary Devices conversation but it’s worth revisiting. Another list here.

  • The Martian – Man vs. Nature — see also Call of the Wild, Into the Wild, and any number of books about natural disasters.
  • Lord of the Flies — Man vs. Man — see also The DiVinci Code, Othello, Water for Elephants
  • Hamlet — Man vs. Self — how frequently is this about survival? Unless it’s Robinson Crusoe, right?
  • The Stand — Man vs. Machine — see also any robot apocalypse stories, time travel stories (where time machines are the model of travel)
  • 1984 — Man vs. Society — see also Red Dawn, Fahrenheit 451; 
  • Oedipus Rex — Man vs. Fate — operating against the future that has been foretold

Segment 3

Does survival here have to be life or death? What other kinds of survival are there?

  • The will to live — think Sansa in Game of Thrones – worse than death is living with the monster
  • Childishness or Innocence — think of Stand by Me (The BOdy by Stephen King) once you know something, you can’t unknow it
  • Safety — how does one secure one’s own person, mental faculties, etc. after a trauma – car wreck, war, abuse
  • Banishment — to be rejected from society, family, or some other organization because of a committed sin; how would one survive after being tossed out of his Amish community?
  • A cause or idea — when the community itself breaks down and the character must survive without the strength of its numbers and ideals

This article takes on the big topic of what is fiction good for (beyond entertainment presumably) and has some interesting takes on how fiction skews our understanding of how likely it is that someone in your life will actually die.

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