Shades of motive

I like to work in the gray area between black and white, the fuzzy zone where the clear choice between right and wrong is less than clear. My thriller Thirst is peppered with situations that challenge my protagonist Alex Graham and my villain alike. But as I swirled my brush against my watercolour paints to find the perfect shade for my colouring book cat, I started thinking about this differently.

If you dip your watercolour brush in pure indigo blue, the result is intense colour. Add water and almost every shade from dark blue to the faintest tint of blue is possible. Mix in a second colour and everything changes, and if you combine too many colours, it becomes muddy.

Motives and personality traits are much the same. A single strong motive is like indigo blue – intense, dark and deep. But water dilutes the motive, allowing you to create a spectrum, with each shade delivering different behaviour and decisions. Consider greed, which in its most intense form can result in armed robbery, and in its more watered down form might drive a person to eat a whole cheesecake. Both actions are driven by the same intense desire, but one is far more dark than the other.

Add a second trait, a second motive, like fear and the colour changes, opening up even more possible choices. A man, desperate to feed his family might resort to robbery, yet someone with strong greed might fear prison enough to not commit the crime at all – it depends on which emotion or motive is strongest.

When enough traits come together, the colours mix and become murky, making it difficult to determine the dominant motive. But isn’t that what real life is like? There are times when fear is the only thing we feel, and we recoil or change direction immediately. Step off a curb and have a horn honk at you, and most of us will turn back. But I’ve seen men and women stop and stare-down the car, thumping their fist on the hood, angrily shouting at the driver. For them, anger and righteousness come through the strongest in that moment.

I work up detailed character profiles for every major character in my thrillers. Upbringing, religious beliefs, childhood friends, hobbies, closely held secrets –basically everything that might make a person “tick”.  As I write, the profile changes and becomes richer, as though I’m adding other colours to create a complex personality, and more water to push behaviour and motive further along the spectrum.

Sometimes my characters surprise me. Even though I believe their personality and motives will drive them to act in a certain way, they resist. It’s because there’s something about the portrait I’ve built that suggests that in that split-second, the character would take a different path. And when that happens, it’s magic.

The advantage of letting your characters drive plot is that they can take you places you hadn’t considered. After all, as authors we too have our own colours. We’re playing out an imaginary story, but there will always be an aspect of our personality within. When a story is too-closely plotted out at the beginning before work has begun, there’s no room for this kind of exploration. It’s like a paint-by-number landscape where each tiny piece of canvas is destined to be filled by a specific colour. Yet if you take away the numbering and let yourself freely decide on each colour, the work can be magnificent.

There are authors who can take away the outlines completely, working with a blank canvas that allows them complete flexibility as they work. That too can be dangerous because unless you have a clear picture in mind, you can end up with an abstract piece of art. While such work can be beautiful, it is often open to personal interpretation, something that isn’t always successful in a novel where your words and plot must guide your reader to visualize the story.

So I’m stepping out from the gray area, to stand firmly in the full spectrum of colour in all its shades. I’ve probably been there all along considering that black and white are often seen as opposite ends of the colour band. But somehow knowing that I have more colours to work with than shades of gray has changed how I think about my characters. My geologist, Alex Graham will never be the same!

Published: Evelyn Cullet, September 3, 2016