On Making Sure Your Characters Aren’t MIS-motivated by Love and Hate


It’s so interesting how both love and hate can be symbolized by a blazing fire….

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.”


12 responses to “On Making Sure Your Characters Aren’t MIS-motivated by Love and Hate

  1. I am reminded of one of my favorite fictional conversations on this subject, from Samuel Delany’s “Einstein Intersection.”

    “Dorik,” I said a little later, “I feel something towards you very close to hate. It’s as close to hate as what I felt for Friza was close to love.”
    “Neither’s close enough to worry about now. You’re too self- centered, Lobey. I hope you grow up.”

    I bring that up because often characters claim and even believe that they are acting from love, when in fact it is their own desires that motivate them.

    Eddie Arkadian from Barry Gordy’s “The Last Dragon”, for example, goes to extreme measures to advance his wife’s singing career, saying that he is doing it all for her. In a climactic scene, she tells him that she doesn’t want it and that he never cared about her, he was doing it for power and using her as an excuse.

    Overt examples of ambition masquerading as hate are less common,
    However it is a common trope that long term revenge plans, once they are achieved, turn out not to satisfy the vengeful. (Most dramatically, perhaps, in Christopher Nolen’s brilliant “Memento”.)

    • this is so very, very true! characters definitely are often not truly motivated by the forces they believe are motivating them. This holds especially true of love and opens all kinds of doors for an author to handle the situation in different, fun ways.

  2. I’m blanking on any good examples. I know comic books use a lot of love/hate motivations. Mr. Freeze comes to mind since he was either trying to revive his dead wife or avenge her. Funny how I’m having so much trouble when love and hate are two of the most powerful and basic motivators. They slip into so many stories even if they aren’t obvious. For example, Sam continues helping Frodo out of a brotherly love. Guess there’s Eowyn’s actions being driven by her love of Aragorn. You know, I was really hoping to avoid Lord of the Rings on this. Seemed too easy at the start.

    Something I’m tackling with my books right now is the emergence of a love connection that I think is cool, but I’m not sure what the audience will consider. It’s revealed that a villain and a supporting character are actually married, but there was no real sign of this beforehand. In fact, their relationship seemed a lot darker. So I guess I’m struggling to see if this works or if I’ve gone too far with the love motivation. It’s really hard to use this on a villain since we look at it as the ‘good’ side of the love/hate coin.

    • I personally love the idea of a villain who is human enough to have an actual, stable relationship 🙂 I think it’s fun though it IS tough to pull off. The real point to look for in your case–which you’ve hinted at–is whether the big reveal, since it was hidden for a time, will feel like a cheap trick on your part or a genuine possibility. If you can make it make sense–even though readers never realized it or thought about the relationship–I definitely think there is a chance such a setup could pay big dividends.

      • I wouldn’t really call this stable. They’ve kind of been forced to sit on opposite sides of the conflict and his goal has become to make everyone suffer for the events that keep her away from him. That or tear down the cosmic rules that caused him pain. It’s strange because the bad guy is very casual about the whole thing. He’s come off as not caring if he gets her back or rules/destroys the world. Either way works for him, so I guess he’s working off hate too.

        I think it can make sense, but it does have a slight taste of cheap trick. Up until this point it was hinted that there was an obsession/hate relationship. Married even caught me off guard when I first thought of it.

        • Ah, gotcha!!! Well that kind of makes sense and even makes his motive defensible to a degree 🙂 I love it when something about a character that I didn’t know before catches me off guard!!!! I feel it’s a sign of real potential to do something interesting.

        • Especially for a villain because it does make him/her no longer a black and white MWAHAHA baddie. There’s some humanity and depth, which can give the hint that there’s the possibility for redemption. Something could always make the hate go away if there’s even a glimmer of hope.

        • Exactly. I love that in a villian.

  3. To me the greatest literary example of truly acting out of motives of love is Sidney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. Nothing tops that, in my mind.

  4. Pingback: Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Paralytic | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  5. Pingback: Two Frustrations Authors Face (That Mean GOOD Things Are Happening) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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