Thursday, February 07, 2013

Why, Themistocles. Why???

Ah, character motivation. That thing that keeps a novel going. That element that keeps the reader turning the pages of your book long after their bedtime. The proverbial glue that holds a story together. You don't have much of a story without a well-motivated character...and therein lies my challenge. I know what my main character does. I don't know WHY.

If you've read Herodotus (or Plutarch) then you're fairly familiar with Themistocles, the architect of Ancient Athens' wildly successful navy. He is a controversial character in many ways, most especially because of the way in which he got things done. That is what makes him so interesting. He'd lie, cheat, steal, beg, borrow and charm if it meant getting what he wanted. The thing I don't clearly understand is WHY. What drove him to be that way? Why did he believe a navy was more important to Athenian power than an army? Why did he choose to go over to the Persians after being chased out of Greece? So many questions and no answers.

Now, the interesting thing is as a historical fiction writer I have the opportunity to fill in the blanks. Alas, I've yet to come up with a motivation that drives Themistocles from one event to the next. I'm tethered by real history, and am having a hard time fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. So MANY interesting things happen during Themistocles' life (the birth of democracy, the Persian wars, etc.) and I want him to be a part of it all. But finding reasons for him to do so are proving difficult. Even when I come up with a good reason for him to WANT to be a part of something, I'm having a hard time coming up with reasons for other characters to want to include (or exclude) him.

Any fellow writers out there who have a similar experience? Any suggestions?


Scott Oden said...

You might try using the history as touchstones, as in depicting Themistokles disgracing an enemy in the political arena with the backdrop being the rise of Democracy. Also, use wholly fictional characters as foils to shed light on Themistokles' character (refer to Pressfield's creation of Xeo to illuminate the character of Sparta and to serve as a narrator not anchored to history).

Carla said...

I don't have anything to add to Scott's comment, except that motivation is always going to be 'many questions and no answers'. Even at the time probably only Themistocles knew why he chose one action over another, and even he may not have been entirely sure, or may have had more than one reason. Historical fiction lets you explore some possibilities and see which ones you can fit together into a story.