Murderous Motives and Dissertation Deadlines

Murderous Motives and Dissertation Deadlines

The general feeling in the comments of my last post (and from people I talked to separately) was that I should delay querying until I’ve done these edits. And the general feeling in my brain is that no matter how much I want to do them now, I have to wait until after my exams. My dissertation is due in barely more than a month, and my exams start in approximately ten weeks. I’m already doing a dance competition the same week that I hand in my dissertation — this novel will have to wait.

But I’m not waiting passively. I’m incapable of doing that, and I’m also incapable of remembering any plot points that I don’t write down, so there’ve been some hasty scribblings in the middle of the night this week, some of them by torchlight. (The bulb blew in my bedside lamp.) I figured I can do some of the thinking and plotting now, even if I don’t do the writing, and it’s a chance to work out whether the rewrite is actually worthwhile.

Image of some handwritten papers on a kitchen table, including several mindmaps.
What started as a few notes turned into five pages and some mindmaps.

And I’ve run into my old problem: motives. What are my characters trying to achieve? I know what happens, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. This is always the flaw in my plotting — I know the events that need to occur, but I’m less good at engineering it so that they happen for a reason.

I thought at first that this was a problem with the rewrite. “Oh, I can’t figure out the antagonist’s motive if I do it like this, I should stick with what I’ve got.” Then I thought about it a bit more and realised… I’m not sure I ever knew what his motive was. He was a fairly passive, shadowy figure, and while that worked in some ways, it did mean that his reasoning was neither clear nor convincing.

I also have no idea where he is for most of the book — again, I realise now I didn’t know that in the previous one either, but it didn’t seem to matter so much because none of the characters cared. The new plotline means it’s actually significant, so I need to figure it out.

In other words, thinking about these edits has turned up a bunch of flaws in the existing book that I’d overlooked. Whoops. I guess that’s reason enough to rewrite, even if I don’t make all the changes I’m considering — though I’ve read some wordcount guidelines that suggest I should probably try and cut about 10k at least, and that’s going to be tricky if I want to actually explain things.

The last time I was stuck trying to work out an antagonist’s motivations, I decided to plot the whole book from her point of view. I’d written a very rough timeline of events from the protagonist’s perspective, and then I went back and wrote what the antagonist was doing and thinking as well. While the two characters were frequently in each other’s company, both were more or less oblivious to the events of the other’s life, so it was possible to come up with an entire alternative storyline that the protagonist didn’t witness. (I also discovered, yet again, that the book was in five acts, more like a Jacobean revenge tragedy than anything else. I keep writing those.)

Doing this really helped, as it made me think of the antagonist as a real characters. She wasn’t just getting in the protagonist’s way and causing trouble because she felt like it: she was pursuing her own goals, which happened to be incompatible with the protagonist’s. This was particularly noticeable because this character wasn’t a villain. She was the antagonist: there’s a difference. And my protagonist wasn’t a hero (she’s a terrible person). Nothing was black and white, and it wasn’t clear which of them had better or worthier goals. The conflict came from the fact that those goals couldn’t both be achieved.

Like, seriously, my protagonist isn’t a good person.

The trouble with the antagonist I’m currently working on is that … well, he is more of a villain. Nobody in this book is really a good person, but this particular character has no redeeming features, and it’s easy to dismiss his behaviour as random deliberate cruelty. “Why would he do that?” I ask myself while plotting, and it’s entirely possible the answer is, “Because he felt like it.”

And it’s not that this is the wrong answer, but it’s not enough. While some of his actions may be random acts of cruelty, others aren’t. He makes several crucial and counterintuitive decisions which shape the book — and at the moment, I don’t know why. I haven’t managed to get inside his head enough to figure out what he’s trying to achieve.

So, I’m going to ponder that for a while longer. I’m not ready to write a timeline yet, because I’m not entirely sure how the overall plot is going to be altered by these new developments. I would rather just try and write it and find out, but time is against me there. And maybe it would be good for me to thoroughly outline something, for once. It’s a skill I need to learn.

So far, I’ve been writing all my notes with an old mechanical pencil on the first pad of paper I was able to find at 2am the other day. When I get back to Cambridge, they’ll go in the folder with the rest of the notes I have for this novel (a surprising number for someone who mostly works digitally, tbh). I also intend to invest in a better mechanical pencil, one that’s more ergonomic than the extremely skinny one I’m using now. Any recommendations are welcome.

Closeup of a black and silver mechanical pencil lying on sheets of handwritten notes, including a mindmap.
This pencil, and two others like it, have served me well, but my dodgy wrists need something chunkier and with better grip.

I need not to let this occupy too much of my brain, though. I haven’t thought about my dissertation since the start of the year, really. While I’ve done most of it, there’s a lot of fine-tuning that needs to be done. And while my exams may still be ten weeks away, I have a lot of work to do. For some topics it will be much less like “revision” and more like “vision”, because I don’t know anything.

Still, it’s nice to have a writing project to think about. I’m giving my body a break from work with dance; my brain needs an outlet too, and it’s a while since I really got into the nitty gritty of writing. (I don’t really count the first draft I wrote for NaNo, mostly because I keep forgetting it exists, but also because minor details like “plot” and “character motivations” tend not to come into first drafts much, in my experience.)

Antagonists are often my weak point, but the first step to fixing that problem is noticing it. I think, probably, these questions I can’t answer are a sign that the book isn’t as finished as I believed, new plotlines or not. Or maybe it was, but it was just… fine. Okay. Decent. I want this book to be good, and that’s why I’m breaking my promise to myself about querying.

But if I get further into these notes and realise the redraft doesn’t work… well, then, I’ll just have to figure out how to make the current plot better.

Anyway. That’s where we’re at. Any antagonist tips? Dissertation tips? Great brands of mechanical pencil? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Murderous Motives and Dissertation Deadlines

  1. It’s probably the “random” in random acts of cruelty that’s smacking you around: most people don’t commit random acts of cruelty; even people who appear cruel are cruel because of something that made them that way; and that thing is rarely that cruelty is how they are wired. So, if you don’t want to get rid of all the things that don’t fit the character’s plans, hopes, dreams, and such, then look in their deep past for whatever made them irrationally violent.

    1. Yeah, I guess so. I think part of it is environment — Espera is a weird city, functionally run by assassins, and growing up there is very different from growing up in the outside world. The character in question works for one of the guilds (he’s a poisoner and also works on developing chemical weapons), so he’s already the kind of person who is okay with murder as a job. From there it’s a fairly small step to other kinds of cruelty and violence. There’s a quote from “Brighton Rock” that sums up how I feel about a lot of the characters in this book: “man is made by the place in which he lives”. (I may be paraphrasing; I haven’t read the book since year 12.) My protagonist and her story wouldn’t exist outside of that specific city, and she’s definitely been shaped by it. The issue is that there are plenty of assassins in the novel, and plenty of other random citizens of Espera, and they’re not all at the level of this antagonist. He’s his own particular brand of dickhead.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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