What Motivates Characters ?

As a storyteller I imagine that the characters in the story I am telling are real. I can see them in my mind’s eye. They have human qualities. As I prepare a story for retelling, I’m often stopped in my tracks wondering “Why did they do this  … and not that?

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There’s a Sufi story Idriess Shah retells about a group of villagers discovering something they’d never seen before in the middle of their wheat field. They thought it was a monster and ran for their lives. 

Life does bring the unexpected. Wandering in a garden, I  wondered what made gardeners do this?

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Then one day, a knowing stranger came along. When he crept up to investigate the monster he saw it was a watermelon. But pretending he was a brave warrior, he jumped up and killed it : chopped it to pieces. The villagers were amazed. When he then began to eat it noisily, they were horrified and feared they might be next! So they chased him out of the area.

This world is full of differences; new; strange; unfamiliar.

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There are sights that can arouse assumptions. Who are the flowers for … and why?
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Why did they leave these behind? Did they have fun stomping on the cans?

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“What possessed the makers to dye these cheeses?

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Recently, my sister told me she’d watched the completion of beautiful mural near the Paris flat where we were staying. Next day, what I saw wasn’t what I expected. Why did he do this?

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Some days later another traveller walked into the village and heard about their monster in the wheat field. When he saw how frightened they were, he crept to the field alongside them and having seen the watermelon, said they were right to be afraid and together they ran back to the village. He stayed with them for a while and every day, bit by bit, he told them all the facts that he knew about watermelons … until the time came when the villagers were no longer afraid and they started cultivating those strange fruits themselves.  

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© Meg Philp

Thankfully, characters’ motives in folktales are made really obvious.  Balance must be restored and problems solved in a shortened space of time . Each character’s desires are made clear from the beginning. They want to change, to go out and seek their fortune :  to move from ill fortune to good fortune,  from fear to confidence, from doubt to trust. They want to live well.

When observing people’s actions in real life, their motivation is not easy to fathom.

Perhaps that’s why people tell stories. By learning from a safe distance what others feel like –  through the story’s characters, their choices and possibilities for action – we are learning how to live well, together, before any “monsters” appear.

I can learn about myself and others by putting myself in the character’s place. As the poet W.H Auden once said,

The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.

What do you think?

All text and photos by Meg

NB. I read this Idries Shah’s story recently but I can’t remember where. You can find Sufi stories in his collections like –

Tales of the Dervishes: teaching-stories of the Sufi Master over the past thousand years, London, Octagon Press, 1982

 Story Twigs …! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Celebrate Your Way

For some reason, fireworks signal celebrations,  especially at this time of year. There are other ways to celebrate, that don’t send $000s up in smoke – each of them our own, in our particular time and place. Here are some I’ve seen or been part of, and of course there’s a story to accompany each one.

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© Meg Philp

Stand on a stone and hold something up high. People will notice.

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Put flags out.

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Bake some bites and invite people over for afternoon tea.

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Give someone you love a big hug.

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Light a candle. (It doesn’t have to be this big.)

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Share a meal with people who love telling stories – that feeling can last for years!

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Dance in the park with whoever requests the pleasure.

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Plant seeds and watch them grow.

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Tell a funny story, then sing your song.

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Get dressed up in full regalia.

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Let people know you’re here. You made it! Let the fun begin.

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And remember, take a photo of your unique creations,  as well as events.

Cherish every one.

Have a Happy New Year, your way.

All text and photos © Meg Philp except No. 6 from N.Baltuck and No. 12  from L. Dowding

Story Twigs …! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.