Giving a Protagonist a Hidden Motivation

Shane WalshRecently I have been in the middle of writing the first installment of a new series entitled The Five Rims.  The first book is titled The Last Terran, and my protagonist is definitely out of the ordinary.

Guillermo March is a former security officer with the C’Tuulian Planetary Police Force, the only Terran to work for them, who after a year long undercover operation finds himself in hospital after losing his arm when the bust goes sideways. (Not to mention that a bomb went off in the human enclave leaving him the only living Terran in existence). They replace his arm with a mechanical one, stating that the genetic graft that is commonplace will not work due to a strangely unique flaw in his DNA.  He has to get used to the arm, and is dealing with a host of frustrating conflict (internal and external), but the following scene is prefaced with an incident where his superior officer U’Zaal belittles him, his best friend and former partner Z’Tnek is murdered, and U’Zaal (in charge of the investigation) has ruled the partner’s death a suicide when Guillermo is sure it was murder.  He exits the building with his sidekick Y’Kaal.  Protestors have gathered outside the building as well, angry over the slow progress of the investigation into the bombing that killed all of the Terrans a many C’Tuulians.

Watch for it.  Do you see it?

Guillermo’s blood percolated with deep anger, his mind reeling at the idea that U’Zaal’s men might be tampering with evidence as they stood down here wasting precious time. His mechanical arm twitched as the neurons fired haphazardly through the artificial nerve clusters, his rage widening his eyes, his teeth gritting together at the thought of his partner’s unjust murder.

The crowd was thick, and the security forces were trying to clear an area around the doors to the lift but were not doing a very good job of it. Guillermo pushed forward, but stopped when four of the protestors forced their way toward him.  One of the protestors, a red skinned working class C’Tuulian, grabbed the arm of one of the security force troops while the others routed another, shoving him to the ground. Guillermo was on the first one before he could think about it, his arm pounding at the chitinous face of the security force troop’s attacker. Another protestor grabbed at Guillermo’s other arm and he brought his elbow back into his throat, then shifted his weight and fell into the first protestor. The security force troop scooted away from the melee on his back, reaching for his shock-baton with a trembling clawed hand.

Guillermo kicked at the first protestor, ignoring the blows of the other while pounding away at the compound eyes and clicking mandibles of the first, and the security force rushed forward to drag Guillermo away from the protestors who limped or crawled away in fear of the angry Terran. The security force troops helped Guillermo to his feet, two of them awkwardly but genuinely patting him on the back, one of them chittering in broken Terran: “Thank’s Officer Maaarrrrgghch.”

But he ignored them, his shoulders rising and falling as he seethed, his grey eyes staring from beneath furrowed brows, his fists clenching and releasing, and then he felt the gentle hand of Y’Kall on his shoulder, but he still flinched.

“Perhaps you should come with me, Guillermo,” she said. “Abusing the locals will not bring your friend back or allow you to investigate your friend’s murder officially.”

He turned to face her, his eyes narrowing, but somehow he had relieved the tension, focused it elsewhere even if his motives were not pure.

“Sure,” he said as he spied the j’umaa cafe nearby. “But first I have to have a drink.”

This is the same situation that Shane Walsh experienced in the first season of The Walking Dead.  Shane had been in a mad affair with Rick Grimes’s wife Lori because Lori assumed that her husband had died.  Once Rick returns to the group alive Lori tells Shane that it is “over”, returning to Rick without another word.  Shane sulks for a while, but then encounters Carol Peletier being beaten by her husband Ed and flies to her “rescue”, tearing Ed away from her and beating him senseless.  This act is seen as heroic by the others because he saves Carol from Ed, but deep down he was only working out his rage over losing Lori.

I think our protagonists need this kind of complexity in order to add multiple dimensions which is more like real life.  It’s perfectly fine if a character does something unexpected or horrible that is perceived as good by others.  Giving a protagonist a hidden motivation is great for the reader because of the dramatic irony it creates.  Readers love to feel like they are privy to something that the characters in the novel are not.  It works for Off To Be the Wizard, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby and for other novels that are written in first person or third person singular.

If beta-readers or critics or your own internal critic tell you that your protagonist is too flat, try adding a hidden motivation only revealed to the reader.  It will make for a much better read.

“The Last Terran” and “The Five Rims Series” are copyrighted material, Roger Colby, 2015.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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