Finding Motivation

How to locate and talk about a character's motivation

First, annotate the story carefully

When you are trying to understand what motivates a character, it is important to read the story, looking at specific words the author has selected and questions you have about the text. For example, in Seedfolks, Virgil is a young boy who helps his father plant baby lettuce so that his family can earn a better income. He says he's embarrassed because his father took up more land than any other person who came to the vacant. One woman - Virgil's former teacher - says that they "have claimed quite a large plantation here." The use of the word "plantation" reminds readers of great big farms devoted to raising crops just to make a lot of money and employing cheap - and many times slave - labor. In America, plantations in the South raised crops like tobacco using slaves. This word helps the reader to understand Virgil's embarrassment at his father's garden because his father seems greedy for taking so much land and then lying about planting it for relatives who don't even live in the United States. His father seems greedy as he plants the lettuce to sell to restaurants at a high cost. He seems greedier for taking space in a garden that no one is using to make money. The word "plantation" makes it seem as if Virgil's father is twisting the intent of the garden and rather than invite others to join, this "plantation" of lettuce is taking away space from others whose intentions may be more honest. Since the word "plantation" is used, I see Virgil and his father as greedy, taking what they need for no thought to others who might want to garden. Annotating carefully can help you find words that will act as clues to a character's motivation.

Second, figure out what the character feels

When you want to understand a character's motivation, it is important to find words and evidence that show you how he feels. In Seedfolks, many words help you to understand how Virgil feels. At first, he feels "embarrassed" by his father's greed. He also explains that the lettuce was like "having a new baby in the family." Virgil and his father had to care for it constantly. Virgil gets "sick" of carrying bottles of water like "an old lady" just to keep it watered. But the lettuce starts to die anyway, and Virgil "stomped" out when he hears this, angry at his father because he was promised a new, eighteen-speed bike for helping and now it looks like there will be no money and no bike. It seems like Virgil feels angry because he will not get a reward, and it is his greed that motivated him to help his dad in the first place. But Virgil seems to feel sad when he looks at his father. He "sort of felt sorry for him" because he thought he could save his family with this lettuce, and instead he is reminded of his failure. They live in a ghetto and he cannot afford a bike for his son. This lettuce was supposed to save his family, and instead it is becoming a reminder of all the things they don't have - especially money. When Virgil prays to the girl in the locket he found in the dirt while digging the garden, he wants her to "save" the lettuce, and in saving the lettuce, save his family. At that moment, Virgil doesn't feel greed. He doesn't care about the bike anymore. He cares about his family.
How To Save A Life - The Fray Alex Goot & Kurt Schneider

Third, look at other characters to figure out the motive.

In the chapter about Virgil and his father's lettuce, Virgil talks about an encounter he had with his former teacher. He says she was the "strictest" teacher. "No slouching in your seat in her class or any kind of rudeness." This teacher sounds like she had high expectations for her students' behavior, and she is the one to first use the word "plantation" when describing Virgil's garden. She seems to be disapproving of the space they have taken for the lettuce, and Virgil's father explains he planted the other plots for other family members. She asks what his "extended" family asked him to plant. When he replies, "lettuce," she says, "'What a coincidence.'" Her sarcasm seems to convey her feelings that Virgil and his father are greedy.

Symbols and Allusions as Clues

Fourth, look for symbols and allusions in the story for clues about a character's motive. In Chapter Seven, Virgil finds a locket, and this locket becomes a symbol for salvation. It is rusty and old, with a broken chain. But this locket has somehow survived in the ground for all of these years. Virgil decides to keep it, and he holds it in his hand when he prays for the lettuce to be saved. This locket becomes a symbol for salvation. Virgil also makes a reference to the "goddess of crops," which in Greek mythology is Demeter. Demeter loses her daughter, Persephone, to the God of the Underworld, Hades, when he kidnaps her. Demeter refuses to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned, and the earth falls into winter. The girl in the locket is like Persephone, buried under the ground and in darkness. Virgil rescues her and returns her to the earth, but she is not yet reunited with her mother. When he prays to the locket, he is praying to the goddess Demeter through her own daughter, in a way reuniting them.
Another allusion is to Virgil himself. In the epic poem Inferno, the author is led into the Hell by the Roman poet and philosopher Virgil, who knows how to help Dante be reunited with his true love. The author may be making this reference to show you that Virgil will be able to lead his father out of this hot summer, which is killing the lettuce. Maybe the answers Virgil seeks are ones he already knows.
Persephone: A Story from Greece

Once you have considered all of these clues ....

It's like a puzzle: once you've looked at all the pieces, see how they fit together. Once you look at the author's word choice, how the character feels throughout the text, other characters' reactions and any symbols and allusions, it's time to draw a conclusion. In the chapter about Virgil and his father, two ideas seem to repeat: greed and salvation. But these seem to be opposing ideas, meaning that they can't exist together because they are opposites. But Virgil doesn't seem greedy at the end of the story. Virgil seems desperate as he prays for help. In the beginning of the chapter, Virgil doesn't seem desperate. He doesn't even seem like he wants to help all that much as he thought he would sleep in. "School was over, but the garden was just starting," he comments, and a new journey emerges for the boy. At first, he helps out because he's promised a new bike, and he's angry the lettuce doesn't grow because he already told his friends he was getting a bike. But Virgil changes at the end of the chapter. He isn't worried about the bike anymore. When he prays to the goddess of crops, he prays for salvation. He wants the lettuce to be saved, because he is starting to see how the lettuce has changed his father. He is fearful, frantic and anxious that this extra income may not come to be. Virgil seems to appreciate that the lettuce is more than money, more than a bike. It is a way for his family to survive - to make their own luck, their own way in the world. So Virgil's motivation changes throughout the chapter.

Mrs. Messenger

Mrs. Messenger teaches English at Naugatuck High School. She created this flyer to show her students how they could write their essays in a variety of ways with lots of pictures, videos and sound to help them make their points.