LIES! The Foundation for Believable Motivation

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by Ane Mulligan

If y’all have been around me for more than ten minutes-okay five minutes, you know I’ll start talking about writing, and if I start on writing, I’ll move into motivation pronto. That’s because through mentors and classes I’ve taken, I’ve learned that’s the foundation of great characters and plotting.

The first one was Rachel Hauck, who asked, “What’s his problem?”

“He doesn’t need one. He’s not a POV character.”

“He does.”

Okay. When I found it, my protag’s goal and motivation became clearer.

Then there was Laurie Schnebly Campbell, who asked, “Why?” so many times, I wanted to reach through my computer screen and slap her silly. But then, after answering her multiple “whys”, the proverbial penny dropped and I knew my protag’s core motivation.

When I begin a new book, I start with learning my characters, and before I even get to the motivation, I write a stream of consciousness backstory for each main character. It’s where I discover secrets I wouldn’t have otherwise known, childhood events that scarred them, and most important it’s where I find the LIE my characters believes about themselves. When I find that, I find their core motivation.

There are 8 Basic Lies that come from the clinical study of psychology. These lies are ingrained in early childhood, by the time a person is 5 years old, from an event or something heard. A child that young can’t reason, and thus it must be true. This LIE is the lens of their worldview and the foundation for their motivation. Your character will either work to prove the Lie is wrong or they give into it.

The Lies are:

1) I’m a disappointment
2) Not good enough (this is a very strong lie, often used for men and strong female leads)
3) I’m not enough – or defective
4) I’m too much to handle and will get rejected
5) It’s all my fault
6) Helpless – powerless to fix (this leads to a fear of being controlled)
7) Unwanted/unloved
8) I’m bad (which could possibly be used as a symptom or excuse for another lie)

In classes I’ve taught on this subject, I’ve seen writers say the lie their character believes is that God doesn’t (or can’t) love them. That’s not one of the 8 Basic Lies. That’s the result or a symptom of the lie, but their lie would probably be: 1) they’re unlovable, or 2) they’re not good enough. The LIE is the why (they believe) God can’t love them.

In plotting, it’s then your job to make your character’s journey result in a resolution that breaks the stronghold of that LIE.

By sticking with these 8 Basic Lies, you’ll come up with the core motivation that is universal and relatable to the reader-motivation that makes the reader suspend disbelief and follow your character through anything.

Leaning Ane President of the award-winning Novel Rocket, Ane Mulligan is a multi-published playwright, humor columnist, and a three-time Genesis finalist. Her debut book, Chapel Springs Revival, releases Sept 8th, 2014.

Comments 0

  1. Hi Ane! This is really great advice. I’ve been working on this recently for my hero and heroine. What lie do they believe and what truth will set them free? My heroine is easy but my hero, not so much. Your list of lies is going to help me get into his head today. Thanks!

  2. Ane,
    Spot on! I’m a psychotherapist, and I love to hear this great psychological stuff. So important to believable character development.
    To the negative lies, let me add that “positive” lies can also be great motivators and conflict producers.
    Your post made it click for me that my protag’s fatal flaw is that she believes “life is good and nothing goes really wrong when you have people to love like I do”. So when her husband dies and she copes most dysfunctionally we’ve got conflict.
    Thanks for this.
    Cris Eastin

  3. Handy list of core lies. Thanks for sharing it!

    Do you know of somewhere online to get a little more info on these basic lies and some of the ways they manifest? I’d like to get a better sense of the difference in personality issues between someone who believes “I’m defective” vs. someone who believes “I’m bad”. Seems like a subtle difference, not sure why they’re different issues.


  4. I’m so delighted this has helped all y’all. It was a lightbulb moment for me when I learned it.

    I’ve come to believe our character’s motivation, which stems from the Lie, is the mortar of good plotting!

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