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Motivation in Character Creation

April 21st, 2017

Many readers will not have heard of Edgar Wallace who lived from 1875-1932, and few will have read his fiction. He was, though, the most prolific and popular author throughout his adult life in Britain and America and one of his works will be known by most people. He authored the story behind the film, King Kong, a picture which has been made four times (the latest this year) and has led to dozens of related spin-offs. Ironically he never saw the film because he died in the year before the 1933 version was released.

Wallace wrote many crime novels and stories and he once said that there were five motivations for murder: jealousy, envy, greed, despair and revenge. If you write crime stories, needless to say, your criminal must have a good motive for their actions. Are there other motives than the five suggested by Wallace? Probably, and it is worth thinking of them. One motivation not stated by Wallace is a character which rarely appeared in early 20th century crime stories – the psychopathic serial killer – and this character has become common in more recent crime fiction. The psychopath’s motivation is more to do with intrinsic evil than the motives cited by Wallace.

However, something else engaged my attention when I read Wallace’s suggested motivations. He cites two of them as envy and jealousy. Is there a difference?  Most people interchange these two words as if they mean exactly the same. I think there is a difference, however, and if one or other was used as a motivation for crime in a story, the nature of the story would be very different depending on whether you were dealing with envy or jealousy.

Think of it this way. Envy is when you want something that someone else has, be it a thing or a person. Jealousy is when you are worried someone is trying to take what you have. If you desire your neighbour’s new car, you feel envy. If your neighbour has taken your wife for a ride in their car, you might feel jealous. You can feel envy for something you don’t have; you can feel jealous over something you are afraid you might lose.

To extend the example in more concrete terms consider this: envy usually involves two people. Your envy of the car requires as well as the car, “you” and the person who owns the car. Jealousy requires three people to be involved. “You”, your “wife” and the “person” who has given her the car ride.

So a fiction about envy will have two important characters one of whom may commit a crime to appease their envy. A story about jealousy will have three important characters, the jealous person possibly committing a crime to alleviate their jealousy.

Motivation of characters is not, of course, confined to crime stories. Nearly all fiction is about people (characters) doing things, usually in relation to other people. Needless to say, there is always a motivation for whatever a character does. So it’s a good idea to consider “motivation” when you devise the characters for stories. What gets them going? What fires them up?


Colin Bulman is the author of Fiction: the Art and the Craft (Compass Books) and Creative Writing: a glossary of fictional techniques,  (Polity Press)


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