Wednesday, January 5, 2011


By Lisa Karon Richardson

How are authors like three-year-olds?

We ask WHY all day long!

Why would we do such a thing?

An excellent question.

It’s because it gets us to the heart of a character—their motivation. And motivation is a primary concern for a writer. To make a character real, we have to consider not just what a character does, but why they do what they do. There needs to be a reason for the characters’ choices. Whether they are making a good decision or a bad one, the choice is not made in a vacuum. It’s based on their background, their experiences and their goals. In short all the “whys.” And not just the hero and heroine.

The villain needs a reason for doing evil. A baddie who is bad for no reason isn’t all that compelling. He’s a flimsy placeholder, flat and unengaging. BUT if we can make a reader understand, even a little bit, what makes him tick, then he becomes much more frightening, because he is us.

Digging deep is hard work, but it pays big dividends. When done properly WHY makes a story come to life.

Motivation is important in real life too. Hebrews tells us that God’s word is sharp enough to divide between soul and spirit and also our thoughts and intentions.

More times than I can count I’ve done right things for the wrong reasons. I might as well have saved myself the effort. God often cares as much about my motivation as he does my actions.

But sometimes I’ve hidden my real motivations so deep between layers of platitudes and justifications that I don’t even realize what they are. The work of digging through those layers and exposing my heart to scrutiny is tough but it’s worth it.

I think that’s why reading a really good book can be so cathartic. The exploration of the human heart is a mirror we hold up to ourselves. We learn and grow nearly as much as the characters in the story.

We know non-fiction can teach us things, but what novels have you read lately that made a real impact on the way you viewed yourself or the world?


  1. Lisa, you mentioned a few things here that relate to ideas I've been working on for some of my upcoming posts.

    1) How I often do the right thing but with the wrong thoughts and attitudes and how I'm working on getting past that.

    2) How I love for a novel to teach me and change me. I've been most changed lately by a Karen Kingsbury novel. I plan to write a recommendation about that one later this month too.

  2. Lisa, you're an excellent writer.

    Boy, I don't want to examine my motivations. Ouch. Too many things are done without the heart behind them.

    The last book that really knocked my complacency around was Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson. Ouch. I highly recommend that one. I haven't read any of her later releases...hmmmm. I wonder why.

  3. Lisa, this post has so many layers to it that I'm going to be thinking about it all day long.

    I love how you started with "motivation" relating to the writing life and flipped it into a soul searching devotional.

    You just changed the way I'm going to "read" this year!

  4. Deb, I'm reading Quaker Summer right now!!!! I just didn't want to give away too much about my Monday post. And The Passion of Mary-Margaret was the same.

    I know I harp on this a lot, but I learn so much from Roseanna White's books too. Her Jewel of Persia is now available in ebook version and the print version for preorder. I think it takes such a wonderful rounded look at love, faithfulness, and forgiveness in all its depth.

  5. Dina, if I recall correctly you hadn't read any Karen Kingsbury until lately. I'll admit I've only read one but it was excellent. Anyway, isn't it cool the way God puts the right book in front of us at the right moment.

    I'm looking forward to your post already!

  6. Deb, maybe you weren't quite ready to be pruned again. It's such a painful process, even when we know it's good for us.

  7. Thanks, Cheryl. That comment made my day. I think sometimes fiction has way more to teach us than we realize. Especially really good fiction.

  8. I'm looking forward to Jewel of Persia too. I need to order A Stray Drop too, where have my priorities been!

  9. Great post, Lisa. Challenging. It's making me re-examine my characters and My Character, too.

    I guess I need to check out some of these books because most of the fiction I've read lately hasn't motivated me in this way. But I always appreciate it and cherish it when fiction challenges how I view myself, God, and the world.

  10. Yeah, Susie I don't think all stories do that. And that's okay. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. But it's the ones that effect me on an emotional level that stay on my keeper shelf.

  11. Fiction books that impacted the way I view myself or the world...hmm?

    This was difficult for me.

    After reading Angel's Den by Jamie Carie, I realized how little I think about the burden's another person might have because I've made assumptions based on external appearance or behavoir. The heroine was a beautiful, wealthy woman being emotional, physically abused by her husband. Her silence or lack of outgoingness combined with affluent attire could come across as icyness. Yet inside she yearned for a friend.

    There's a lady in my adult Sunday School class who wears enough jewelry for all the women in the room, dresses to the nines with her fur coats and whatnot, and is always spouting scripture or some other spiritual platitude.

    She drives me bonkers. I swear I've rolled my eyes far too many times when she speaks and prays. Yes, that's utterly awful of me to do and to admit. I wore athletic clothes to church two months or so ago just to see if she'd look down her nose at me. She did. No exaggeration.

    Yet after I read Jamie's book, I realized how I'd allow my own prejudices to clout my feelings about that lady. Just because I don't like decking myself out with a jewelry store doesn't mean I should look down on her for doing so. I also realized how I'd put too much focus on what I thought that lady did wrong and a little too thought on my own superior-than-her attitude.

    I doubt I'd even be friends with the lady, but I certainly know I won't roll my eyes anymore. I can't control her behavior. I can control mine.

  12. Ooh, hitting me where I live, Gina! I'm all too often guilty of reverse snobbery when I'm with something like that.

    I guess that's why Jesus warned about specks in other people's eyes, when we have beams in our own.

  13. Ohhh, Lisa, like Cheryl, I love the way you worked this around into a devotional. I love fiction that motivates me to strive to be a better person. I also love fiction that isn't that deep and just makes me feel good. I often alternate between the two.

    On the issue of the villian, you are so right. We need some glimpse into 'why'. I even think if there's something about that villain that could make the reader almost feel sorry for him (by that I mean, feel sorry for the little child that villain once was) it makes the reader that much more invested in the book and character, makes them keep reading, makes them eager for the next book.

  14. Lisa, I thought of a book I listened to on audibook recently, that touched me and made me want to be bolder in my witnessing to others. The book was by Terri Blackstock. She took a woman, the heroine, and put her in a situation ewhere she did something very wrong for a valid reason. (I really like when the heroes in Christian books are far from perfect) The heroine actually went to jail for her crime, where she was able to witness to a very terrible woman who happened to be at her most vulnerable lowest point. The heroine learned (hence the reader) to be bold, speak up-speak the truth, and show love to a fearsome very unlovable enemy. I loved that Terri used a more flawed than usual character. I learned from it.

  15. yup me too.
    Reverse snobbery.
    Is that called looking UP your nose at someone?

  16. Suzie, what book was that? It sounds awesome.

    I'm like you in that I read based on my mood. Sometimes I crave something deep and soul stirring, other times, I just want to giggle.

  17. Great description, Deb. Glad I'm not alone!

  18. Lisa, I think it might be called Justifiable Means.

  19. Lisa, I think it might be called Justifiable Means.

  20. Thanks, Suzie. I'm going to look it up. Sounds like it was a realistic representation of what it's like to be imperfect and yet try to share with people a perfect God.

  21. This is a great post. Thought-provoking and it's got me thinking...

    Which was the point, right?

    I love books that stir my soul. That tweak my conscience. And I'm going to name a childhood book that changed my life, my outlook, my goals. Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the story of a little girl who had to change with the times, then realized she liked the new version so much better.

    Sometimes those childhood vibes stay with you forever, and what author wouldn't want that?

    But now you've got me thinking, and that can be a dangerous past-time!

  22. Just depends on what you're thinking about Ruthy!

    I know there were lots of books I read as a kid that shaped me. Anne of Green Gables is one. Taught me about attitude and reinforced my appreciation of imagination. Along with Little Women, I think it may also have been my first inspiration for writing. I wanted to be like Anne And Jo.

  23. Great post, Lisa! We just finished a series at JLM called "The Heart of..." and definitely got into that painful place of soul-searching and examining our motivations. Some books, fiction and non-fiction, that I can recall helping me in this area:
    "It Came from Within" by Andy Stanley, highly recommended. Frank Peretti's characters often did this heart searching that shined the light on my own inner struggles. Tilly and The Visitation both come to mind.

  24. It always hurts at the time doesn't it, Rick. Like taking off a bandage to expose the infection beneath. But so beneficial when all that yuck can be washed out and removed.

    Andy Stanley has some great things to say. I really like This Present Darkness by Peretti as well, it still remains my favorite of his. Just gave me a different perspective on spiritual warfare.


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