A few years ago, my daughter and her friends were standing in their schoolyard across from a dollar store. They noticed a teenaged woman running out of the store with a big bag in each hand. As she hurried across the parking lot, several items from the bags spilled onto the ground. The young woman ignored them and kept going, to the road and across the street. When she reached my daughter and her friends, she stopped for a moment and blurted out that she’d been caught taking things from the dollar store and did anyone want any of the items. Thankfully, they knew enough to refuse and watched her as she rushed down the sidewalk and disappeared around a corner.
My daughter and the other kids decided they should do something, so they went across to the parking lot picking up all the items. They returned them to the store and explained what they had seen. The manager was grateful and thanked them profusely.
Later, as my daughter told me the story, she stopped at this point, looked thoughtful, and said, “I know what she did was wrong, but I actually felt really sorry for her.”
When I asked her why, she replied, “Because all the stuff she stole was for a baby.”
The entire story changed here, with the introduction of a plausible (and heart-wrenching) motivation for the crime. Clearly the teenager was a frightened new mom, desperately trying to provide for her child. Although her actions were undeniably wrong, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for her, as my daughter did.
The same thing happens with our characters when we write. Motivation for actions, questionable or undeniably evil, can explain, if not necessarily excuse, those behaviours, thereby creating at least a tiny amount of sympathy for the character. And that sympathy is imperative in order to develop a multi-dimensional character that the reader can relate to, at least in some small way.
And maybe taking motivation into account can help to understand and empathize with not only the characters we are reading and writing about, but the people we encounter in our everyday lives as well. Something to consider, anyway.
Press on, my friends.