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Epic Character Motivation with Jack and Jill

The following story is one that has been passed down in my family for generations. It's a pretty awesome tale. Listen carefully, and behold the wonder!

At the dawn of time, nice sister Jill walked up a hill. Then, mean brother Jack pushed her down and laughed. The end.

... Okay, forget the generations of wonder thing. This story sucks. I mean, if you look at it part-by-part, it's not that bad - among other features, it's got a cool setting (the dawn of time), a difficult journey (Jill trekking a hill), and familial betrayal (Jack knows a good villain always laughs).

But it's lacking oomph. In a world of candy, this story is bran cereal. It doesn't even provide you with an extra serving of fiber - and you NEED your fiber. You know what it's really missing?

Character motivation. Yeah, baby!

Stick with me here. Why is Jill going up that hill? More pressingly, why does Jack feel the need to push his sister down?

Some may say the answers are implied. We all know nice girls like Jill - always going up that hill to fetch a bucket of water. And we all know mean brothers like Jack. They're twisted, they most likely torture animals, and they find joy in harassing their innocent sisters.

The thing is, although that implication could fit the story, it's most likely a trick. Worst of all, it's lazy writing. (Did you hear that, whoever wrote it? Muah hah! Oh, wait.)

Let's consider the possibilities.

POSSIBILITY A. Jill really is just a nice girl, looking to fetch some water for her mom, who's super busy. And Jack really is just an a-hole - all the love he's received over his teenage lifetime has gone to his head, and the sight of his sister annoys him. SMACKDOWN. I mean, pushdown. Sorry, Jill.
EPICITY LEVEL: Bo-ring. Unless Jack knows kung fu. That would make it more fun. (Sorry, Jill!)

There you have it - the basic-level motivation for each character. But pretty much any buster could point out that things are almost never that simple. Are you a buster? I think you are.

POSSIBILITY B. Jill's still fetching water to help her mom. But Jack's tired of his nice sister always having the glory. All his life, he's been pushed aside in favor of Jilly McNicerkins - Mom didn't even ask him if he wanted to fetch the water. Sure, he knows he'd probably have ended up screwing around in the well, but people could at least give him some expectations to live up to! In his emotional frustration, Jack decides to get back at Jill by pushing her down. ANGST.
EPICITY LEVEL: Better! We've got the reasoning, the core of Jack's character. Jack even admits to screwing around, but he still yearns for someone to expect more of him. Oh, man. Poor Jack. I bet Jack is hot. Doesn't Jack sound hot to you?

All right, all right, sorry about the hormones. So this is better, but we still need more - more oomph, more fiber. At this point, compared to Jack, Jill's motivation might as well be constructed from cardboard. We're talking poly-grade cardboard, the kind my dog likes to chew on. Why, oh why is sister Jill helping her mom, when she knows mean brother Jack will probably end up pushing her down?

It's time to find out.

POSSIBILITY C. Jilly McNicerkins. That's the only way her brother - heck, her whole family - sees her. Not Jilly McWantstoDesignClothes. Or Jilly McHasARagingCrushonToddBenson. So Jill agrees to get the water - because if she refused, her mom would laugh like it was a joke. Part of Jill loves being relied on, and that means people must always expect her to be the nice girl. But once, just once, couldn't they quit it with the expectations and let her be human? And now Jack has pushed her down for no reason. Sah-weet.
EPICITY LEVEL: Houston, we've oomphed the fiber. Turns out Jack and Jill have parallel conflicts: one would give anything for some outside expectations, while the other would give anything to shed them. And neither has any insight into the other's crazy head. Suddenly, this scene becomes a possibly overwrought, but hopefully intriguing, study of sibling dynamics. Also, sparkly violence!

When filling a story with characters, it's easy enough to say your villain hunts your protagonist because he's evil, or that your main character tries to be popular because popularity is good. But that ain't epic.

Epic character motivation reveals the core of that character. To that effect, character motivation and character development are one in the same. By figuring out the motivation - the real motivation - behind each of your characters' actions, those peeps come alive. And that's where the fun starts. (If 3AM conversations with people who technically exist only in your head is your idea of fun. Which is IDEAL.)

Brought to you by: My Recent Agent Revisions Were Aaaall About This Stuff. Holla! What are your thoughts on character motivation? And how could Jack's and Jill's be even better?
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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  1. This post was million shades of awesome! Very funny. Love the pic.

  2. The picture was a little creepy at first, until I read the full post. Then the picture, and even moreso the post, are just awesome.

  3. Loved that you used Jack and Jill as an example (always thought something was off in that riddle).

    It's a great explanation on how to flesh out your characters. They become more believable given reason for their motivations.(Hugs)Indigo

  4. I could stare at that picture all day. Beautiful.

  5. At first I thought that was a picture of me and my brother... then I realized I'd be the one doing the decapitation. (:

    Great post!

  6. You're too funny! Great example though. Way to break it down Emilia!


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Item Reviewed: Epic Character Motivation with Jack and Jill Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater