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Motivation to Write vs. Motivation to Read - The Motive Center
May 28th, 2005
11:24 pm

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Motivation to Write vs. Motivation to Read
After two weeks of fairly exhausting travel (San Francisco, Amsterdam, London--and to Boston between each), I'm back to write another post, thanks to loupnoir's kind post. Hey, I'm a writer too--I need feedback like everyone else!

I noted earlier that there is a difference between your motive to read something and your motive to write something. In fact, the review on Amazon refers to this exact point. I can't update the book just yet, but I can discuss the matter here!

As readers of this LJ and my book know, I have found that most published writers seem to be motivated primarily by the desire to influence others, known as the Influence Motive or technically as the Power Motive. Research has indicated that people read books for fun based on their motives: Primarily Achievement-motivated people read how-to books and/or puzzle-type mysteries; those strongest in Affiliation read books about personal relationships and characters such as romances or probably most "literary" works; and people strongest in Power/Influence tend to read nonfiction like political biographies, psychology, or theology, and fiction with more sexual and violent content such as thrillers, hard-boiled PI fiction, etc. But I studied writers who wrote all those things, and yet they were consistently highest in Power--strikingly, in fact. So why would a Power-motivated person enjoy writing, say, a Regency Romance?

The short answer: because you are doing something different when writing a book than you do when reading it. The long answer after the cut!


My original hypothesis, in fact, was that people wrote what they read. Made sense superficially, but was wrong. Let's look closer at what turns writers on.

Fiction writers generally have to:
1. Create a world or at least a setting
2. Create characters in conflict with each other
3. Create a plot, which usually entails putting someone in conflict with other people, oneself, or a setting (e.g., nature)

Now, what do all those things entail? Creating a world -- Achievement motivated? For some people, yes, and this is why detailed and elaborate worlds are characteristic of certain kinds of SF writers. I would be unsurprised to find that some of the very "hardest" SF works were created by writers with more Achievement motive than typical. These are folks who would get pleasure from solving the problems that go into a world design. But look more closely. A writer does not create any world--he or she must create an interesting world, a world that interacts with the character. If the intent of the book is to show off an unusual place or time (an alien world, a British boarding school with a twist, the Navajo culture, WWII, the Roaring '20s, medieval Japan), then you are implicitly looking for a place that will have an impact on your audience--you are trying to show someone something and impress them with it. If you are creating a new world, as in fantasy and SF, that is part of the draw: you use the uniqueness of the world to draw people in. (Certainly those are the books that publishers are more likely to buy!) But first you have to create a world that is fun for you to live in. Dorothy Sayers described writing as feeling like "God on the seventh day" when it worked. A fairly Power-oriented description, don't you think? The fun of creation itself! Not only that, but many of the worlds that live strongly in literature, e.g., the Regency era, a very narrow period which has spawned a vast romance literature, are filled with political conflict, authority figures, dramatic (e.g., influential) figures, etc. Achievement motivated people like to learn about such worlds, but to create them generally takes Power motive, or sometimes both Power and Achievement.

Creating characters isn't done in isolation, either. Again, how many books can you think of that describe boring people? In fact, one classic approach is to take an ordinary person and put them in extraordinary circumstances, thus messing them up. This is a psychological sort of task: creating an interesting person from the ground up, and setting them up. Heinlein described his plotting as taking a bunch of people and "getting them into trouble." H. G. Wells had a book titled A Mind at the End of Its Tether, which is not a bad description of a lot of literature. How about Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King? Describes a person with a motivation, doesn't it? The fun for a writer is in assembling an interesting person--again, an explicitly power-oriented sort of task. The character you create may be of interest to the Affiliative or the Power-motivated, but the process of creating a character is Power-oriented.

And plotting, well, I've discussed that in passing in the previous two. Unless you are writing a railroad timetable mystery, chances are you are plotting by planning how to slam people and situations together. Some writers rub their hands with glee as they play with their creations--sounding for all the world like the Greek gods in the Illiad--messing with the mere mortals they control. And even railroad timetable mysteries have to have some personal conflict to get it going!

So in other words, while learning about new worlds is appealing to the Achievement motive, vicariously experiencing romantic relationships appeals to the Affiliation motive, and so forth, writing about them is generally a more Power-related activity.

Current Music: All She Wants Is

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From:casfic
Date:May 29th, 2005 12:50 am (UTC)
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Interesting. And yet, for me, at the moment, it's more important to write the sort of thing that I would like to read, and I don't much like the sort of things you list as Power motivated people liking!No I'm definitely the sort who rubs their hands with glee as they play with the characters - and the more messed up they get the better.
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From:stevekelner
Date:May 29th, 2005 03:22 pm (UTC)

Playing with characters

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Ah, but that is perhaps the most Power-motivated of all!
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From:casfic
Date:May 31st, 2005 01:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Playing with characters

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I thought as much.
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From:rei_c
Date:May 31st, 2005 11:20 am (UTC)
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As casfic said, very interesting. And also a question - if a writer is 'God' for their creation, is that why being blocked is so frustrating? The inability to draw out this power-motivated work...

I think there's a question in there, but I'm not quite sure. Most likely not.
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From:stevekelner
Date:May 31st, 2005 01:03 pm (UTC)

Blocking Creation

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Hmmm...interesting point. I have heard writers complain about their non-cooperative characters: "They're MY characters, dammit, why won't they do what I want?!?" Definitely an expression of Power/Influence motive. Here you are, lord of your domain, and it keeps messing up!

There's an early Alfred Bester novella (I can't recall the title offhand) where among other events an artist gets his wish to be a God creating his own universe, but it all comes out twisted--because he himself has been given an awful and twisted appearance, and of course creation is in his own image...for some reason this reminded me of that.

As a side note, one researcher (Wei Chen) found that you could measure people's frustrations as an indicator of motive more reliably than you could their pleasures!
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