I recently moved to Alberta after 35 years in the Yukon. I love the Yukon—its wilderness and wildlife, the calibre of people it attracts, its artistic soul . . . The Yukon is in my blood and I would never have left it.
Except . . .
Except. That’s the thing, isn’t it? The why of someone’s actions. I’m an avid reader of crime reporting but news stories inevitably leave me frustrated. They almost never address the motivation behind the crime. And that, more than anything, is what I want to know.
Why did the real estate agent risk their career by facilitating fraud when it was so easy to get caught?
Why did the gang member shoot three innocent people before finally hitting their target? What was so vital about killing that one person that they were willing to kill innocents?
Why did the father choose to kill his children instead of walking away? Mental illness? To hurt his wife?
These questions baffle me, especially with the benefit of hindsight (“Yes, but why didn’t you do this instead?”). That’s why motivation is so important in my writing.
I have always thought of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, though in the last few years, I’ve written more and more short fiction. Long or short, the question always remains the same: Why? What motivates my characters to do the things they do?
In The Shoeless Kid, the first of my Mendenhall Mysteries, brand new Chief Kate Williams finds herself wondering why an old homeless man would brave the police department to report a monster abducting a child if there wasn’t a kernel of truth in it. What she can’t admit—even to herself until much later—is that the case reminds her too much of an event early in her career where her lack of action led to a boy’s death.
In The A’lle Murders, the first in the A’lle Mystery series, Constance becomes the first A’lle investigator for Lower Canada. Her motivation for becoming one is to bring a regular pay cheque home to her family, but deep down, she wants to chip away at the discrimination she and all A’lle on Earth face, especially in Lower Canada.
Short story, novella or novel, the motivation for each character has to make sense. Don’t give me a character who does something just for the heck of it (or because the author needs the character to do it). The character may not know why he or she is doing it, or other characters in the story may not know, but the reader has to know. At least, eventually.
In Identity Withheld, my most recent standalone novel, all Cleo wants is to keep her parents safe from whatever has been chasing them all her life—even if it means lying to the police. Her motivation is crystal clear and drives all of her actions.
In “The Mittens,” my story in AHMM, Estelle Martin is the retired commanding officer for the Yukon RCMP. She’s based on a boss I once had, a woman close to six feet tall who strode through life like a Valkyrie. I wanted to be her when I grew up. But Estelle—Stella to everyone else—is unlike my former boss in that she is jaded, impatient and intolerant of stupidity. And she absolutely does NOT want to have anything to do with police work anymore. That part of her life is done.
So why does she get involved in the murder? It all has to do with the mittens.
As for me moving to Alberta, what could possibly have motivated me to leave my beloved Yukon? Well, it turns out Alberta is where they grow the grandchildren.
Best motivation of all.