Today I want to start of series of posts on the forces that motivate characters, and I’d like to start with some reflections on topics that are often overdone, overemphasized, made cliche, or glossed over because they are such basic human emotions: love and hate.
I understand how cliche an author’s treatment of love and hatred can become in fiction. I understand it well enough that I feel like this post is a big risk. I worry that I can only give a cliche treatment of such a topic. So please bear with me. I think if we can cut through the cliche there’s a lot of consider.
The first thing that occurred to as a direction to take this post was the quote from BBC’s “Sherlock” that says:
Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator.
I think that is very true, even self-evident upon a little reflection, so I don’t want to say too much about that. It’s quite true that love doesn’t merely turn people into sappy, defenseless schmucks or (to paint a better picture) sacrificial saints, although it can. It’s also quite true that both the schmuck and the (perfect) saint are very, very difficult characters to write in an original, interesting way.
I’d rather focus on another, far more common quote:
There’s a thin line between love and hate.
Don’t worry; I’m not getting into love-hate relationships here. The thing that strikes me reflecting on this quote is this: We are often blind when we deal with or judge ourselves, but really, the qualities and the tendencies we hate the most in others are the ones we hate in ourselves and don’t want to recognize as part of us.
To really boil my point down–and I know this loses a lot of subtlety and complexity, but it works as a basic summary– we want to respect ourselves. We often prefer to focus on our strengths and so we sometimes ignore our weaknesses. And we hate when someone who shares those weaknesses reminds us about them.
I definitely think this is true in my case, if nothing else. I hate self-pity because I’m prone to it. I hate when people blow up about the little things because I tend to be far too serious. Now, I don’t hold grudges. And I don’t hold little things that people do against them; but I do let little inconveniences bug me more than I should.
Anyway, this fact can hold true for characters. And I think it works best in fiction when it’s true in a subtle way, or subtly hinted at rather than really blasted to shreds.
I’m realizing that this is what I’m trying to pull off in my new companion piece to the Herezoth trilogy. It tells the story of “The Crimson League”-well, of sorcerer Zalski Forzythe’s coup–from the point of view of a palace servant who supports him.
She is motivated by a lot of things, but mainly by how much she hates the hypocrisy of her nobleman father, who will have nothing to do with her because she’s a bastard. She loathes him for all the flaws common to most of the ruling class that he exhibits.
What I think, though, that she really loathes is that she is a part of the noble class, or should be. She hates that she can identify with him. She loathes how a part of her she always denies does long for the things he has: the security, the luxury, the power.
I’m excited that I’ve realized this about Verony. I don’t think she merely wants revenge on him. I think the hatred that motivates her runs deeper; I think that at the core she really does hate that she doesn’t hate him more, because she recognizes that she wants the life he has.
Now, I’m hoping to reflect this under the surface.
- I don’t plan to have any character outright accuse Verony of longing for what her father has, or necessarily even have Verony understand or recognize it.
- I hope to demonstrate this in subtle ways. Perhaps Verony can make a throwaway comment or two about a group less prestigious than hers. Rather than have her say, “I want that life,” or “I belong there” and look like a petulant, jealous child, I’ll have her legitimately ask: “Why does he deserve those things, and not me?”
The difference there is subtle, certainly, but it’s real. And it’s important. It’s the difference between a surface-level recognition of jealousy and a deeper reflection upon a true injustice and the innate equality of all humanity. It adds a layer of complexity and makes Verony–if nothing else–a character I can respect just a smidge more.
So, what examples in literature of love and hate as motivators are your favorites? How do you try to work and balance love and hate in your writing? Any thoughts?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”