Sunday, February 24, 2013

Motive and Motivations

Writers of crime fiction think hard about motive and motivation in an effort to give authenticity to their characters' behavior. My motive in this short piece has something to do with surprise, my own.

In the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), B. J. Rahn explores the subject of motives in crime fiction, citing two main publications on the topic as well as numerous mystery novels. F. Tennyson Jesse, in Murder and Its Motives (1924), a study of true crime, isolates six motives: "gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, conviction, and blood lust." Rahn next cites Ruth Rendell's The Reason Why (1995), in which the author also cites six motives for murder: "gain, revenge, escape, altruism or duty, insanity, and impulse or curiosity." Rahn explores these systems more extensively and cites numerous mystery novels as illustrations.

When I begin a new story my first question is who are these characters and what do they want? It's the one who desperately wants something that drives the story. In one form or structure, the one most driven is the detective seeking the truth, or the solution to the question of who did what. And beneath that is the reconstructing of an earlier story--what did the villain do? The crime mystery moves forward in investigation by moving backward in reconstructing a crime and its motivations.

The essay on motives in the Oxford Companion is helpful in pushing at least this writer to think about possibilities. We all have our favorite ruts, or stories, and every writer is in danger of recreating a favorite plot. We can too easily fall into a formula within the genre formula. Reading broadly in both fiction and nonfiction is a way of pushing ourselves out of that rut and away from at least one danger in writing.

But the motive for this piece?

On the Five Star chat list a writer posted a link to a newly discovered "service." At the site a writer can type in her blog or website and determine its general ranking, on a scale of 1 to 10. Since I'm just as ego driven as any other writer, I went to the site expecting to find my blog or website ranked near or at zero. To my continuing amazement, it ranked 4 out of 10. This is surely an error and a warning to other writers not to take this ranking system seriously.

Nevertheless, the ranking made me feel I was shirking my duty, not living up to the standard that at least someone else thought I had met. I decided I'd better get writing--on my blog. So here it is. Motive and motivation.

If you have a blog or website and want to face an entirely arbitrary ranking, go to the site below. And I hope you are as pleasantly misinformed as I was.