Character motivation: a witness to a murder speaks about internal conflict

I talk a lot here about character motivation–what drives our characters, and how unexpected factors shape their actions. This piece from NPR’s Storycorps project, broadcast in August 2012, struck me as a powerful illustration of how a violent event can affect a person–and drive her to unexpected actions.

As a teenager, this woman witnessed her boyfriend commit a racist murder of an Ethiopian immigrant. The experience and its aftermath led her to deliberately raise her own children very differently, and eventually to get a degree in social work and start working with at-risk youth. But, she says, even though she knows she’s changing the cycle, “I just still feel like not a good person,” she says. “And I don’t forgive myself.”

Every character–like every person–has internal tensions that drive them to act, often in unexpected ways. Is a character in your story driven by a brush with violence? How has she been affected by denying it, keeping it secret, confronting it? What price has she paid–in the world, and in her own life? How does that emerge in the story you’re writing?