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26 September 2011

Character Motivation

I love fairy tales, particularly the Grimm fairy tales in all their visceral glory. One of my favorites is König Drosselbart a.k.a. King Thrushbeard.  The tale is essentially a "taming of the shrew" story. The haughty princess snobbishly spurns her suitors and as punishment is married off to a beggar who subjects her to a series of humiliations meant to break her proud spirit. Once humbled and properly put in her place, the beggar reveals himself to the princess as the spurned King Thrushbeard and all ends well. When all is said and done, the story plays out like typical patriarchal propaganda: men know best and women must be subservient to their wishes. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
For the love of you I disguised myself...All this was was done to humble your proud spirit and to punish you for the arrogance with which you ridiculed me.

For The Beggar's Wife I would like to update King Thrushbeard with 21st century sensibilities. Which brings me to character motivation.

In fairy tales we never get to find out why a character is behaving in a particular way - these stories are too busy moralizing to delve any deeper. In novels, however, the reader wants to know the reasons why characters decide to do particular things. 

  • Why is the princess so arrogant and mean to her suitors?
  • How can a father be so cruel as to marry his daughter not only to a stranger but to a beggar?
  • Why would King Thrushbeard fall in love with a snobbish princess only to humiliate her and seek to rid her of the very arrogance that presumably attracted him to her in the first place?

If characters are properly motivated, then their actions and the story itself becomes believable. My goal is to find answers to these questions. Since the novel will be based on a fairy tale, I already know what will happen. The question that remains as it transitions into a novel is why.


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