Motives Count

There’s a clichéd bit of dialog that often pops up in detective fiction. One character says to the other, “Motives don’t count. It’s only about the evidence.” But in fiction —as in real life — motives do count, and the rationale behind them should be credible.

Of course credible is not the same thing as rational. People make irrational choices all the time. It’s the role of the writer to make the irrational actions of characters makes sense to the reader. Maybe it’s in her nature to be blunt and say the wrong thing at the worst possible moment? Maybe he has a history of pulling his gun before asking questions? Sometimes it’s in the back story and sometimes it’s in habitual behaviors or personalities, but it should be there — someplace. Lately, I feel like I’m drowning in unexplained irrational choices.

I was watching a police procedural show on TV and the murder victim’s completely irrational decision to meet a former lover in a secretive, and yet public, place instead of simply picking up the phone or sending her an email, was an unexplained and completely irrational plot point.

This meeting enables the detectives, the media and other characters, to surmise that he’s cheating on his wife and going back to his “playboy” antics by meeting with his former girlfriend in an out-of-the-way bar. When the ex says, all he did was ask for the name of the immigration lawyer so he could help a friend, his motives are assumed to be suspicious. Speculations flow from this meeting and become the principle red herring in the plot.

Rich, powerful, successful murder victims don’t have to rely on ex girlfriends to find a lawyer. And, if they choose to ask for a recommendation from a former lover, they don’t have to meet in person. For the character it was an unexplained, uninvestigated, irrational action. For the writer, it was a quick diversion — a trick to undermine the detectives. It wasn’t a huge “mistake” but it was annoying.

The same night I saw that show, I read part of a very sloppy private detective novel. This plot was riddled with the protagonist’s blatantly stupid decisions but the flimsy rationales of the other characters made him seem like a genius. I think I kept reading because there were many attempts to be creative in clichéd descriptions. Let’s face it, there’s a certain skill in finding new ways to say a bikini is tiny. But the constant drum of dumb choices forced me to give up on the novel. It’s not just that none of the characters were intelligent, rational or even clever, it’s that they all made obvious “missteps” without the necessary history that would lead them toward those choices.

Do the readers a favor, clue us in on how the characters think and even walking out into a stormy night with an aging flashlight will make sense.




  1. It’s very annoying when the plot is full of the obvious moves so that you know who’s about to be killed and sometimes by whom. It’s impossible to work out the clues as you go along and make your guess at the appropriate time before the fictional detective does so. Agatha Christie was a master ( Mistress?) at leaving red herrings for readers to follow, but she would craft her plots and not have them doing irrational things just to fill a few more pages.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes that’s it CRAFT. The craft of plotting, where the course of events hang together. This can because actions are rational OR because the irrational actions have a rationale that makes sense in the context of the characters lives.

      Christie was spot on with this. Her characters — even her wacky ones — were solid.

  2. Sometimes I feel so confused by human interactions that I am amazed when I can get interactions written that sound even vaguely realistic. I can see a detective scene for me being: “Did you do it?” No, it was Joe.” “Okay, thanks.” Goes to Joe’s and arrests him.

    • Candy Korman

      This unnamed mystery, would have had the detective ask the first guy about Joe’s childhood and why it led to him killing — BEFORE the arrest.

  3. -giggles- Yes! And the lack of motivation, or at least reasonable motivation, flows across all genres. I can’t work it out; do the writers/creaters not know ‘how’ to do it, or do they assume we’re all dumb, and write to our supposed level? 🙁