The Power of the Backstory, by Lucy Mills

Why do we do what we do?

This question underpins a lot of my next 'Big Idea' (yes, those tentacles I talked about taming in a previous post). Therefore, today I want to talk about motivation.
Not in the '10 ways to get you going!' or '13 steps to success' kind of way. Not in a cheesy, 'I'm so glam and I've got it down' kind of way.

More of a heart-deep, spirit-centred way.

Motivation is a funny thing. It might seem easy to try and explain what motivates us but often our answers are not the whole truth. We may not be false in intention – but we don't always know what goes on within us, what triggers every impulse, what lies behind every story.

Fiction writers work on creating backstories for their characters – back stories that aren't presented in one big lump in the manuscript (we hope!), but threads of motive, of reason, of 'why do they behave like this?' woven through the whole. We don’t join all the dots for our readers but the hints are there, hints that make the reader wonder, hints that give an authenticity to the way a character behaves.

We don't always know the full extent of the back story. I suggest we don't even know our own back stories as well as we think. We don't realise the impact something has had on us. We can't quite put our fingers on when an idea first crept into our minds.  We don't always realise the associative impact of the people, the things and the places we meet, experience and see.

Sometimes our motives seem obvious. Sometimes they are hidden, even from ourselves.

People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
(1 Samuel 16:7 NIVUK)

Nothing is hidden from God, but it is frequently hidden from us. We often make judgements about what other people are thinking – but how can we know? (I'm amused sometimes in nature documentaries when the commentator goes into great depth about what the animal is thinking. How do you know?! I want to ask.)

Sometimes I barely know my own thoughts. Sometimes I think I do but actually they're just covering up my true state of mind.

Motivation is a complex thing. It’s worth pondering it, sometimes, in a non-judgemental way. Why am I doing this? Does it matter why? What do I want to be my primary motivation…and is it?

Why do we do what we do? Why do we write? Why do we write what we do?

It’s not always easy to give a pat answer, but perhaps it shouldn't be – not for writing, not for living. Our journey is one of discovery – of what it means to be human, what it means to be 'me' not 'you' but how together we are 'us', of what it means to be known – and loved – by God.

As writers, we are expressing this journey in a myriad of ways.


Lucy Mills

Lucy's first book, Forgetful Heart: remembering God in a distracted world, was published in 2014 by Darton, Longman and Todd (DLT). She's written articles, poetry and prayers for various publications and is an editor at Magnet magazine.

Lucy on Twitter: @lucymills
Lucy's Facebook page

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  1. This thought came to me about not knowing what other people are thinking. I remember reading in a book years ago something like, "She was a catty as she was perceptive."

    So, even if you are good at guessing what someone is thinking, you have to be careful how you use that ability!

    Useful to list past posts here too. Sue

  2. So true and very apposite as I am working on showing not telling my main character's back-story at the moment. Great post.

  3. This was helpful as I sit here today in a bit of a slump wondering why I'm doing any of this - not thinking of th back story but trying to look forward to the point of it all. Actually in looking back I can start to remember why

    1. Yes, sometimes we need reminders of 'why'...


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