The basic job of a murder mystery writer is to create a puzzle that will challenge and hold the interest of readers. Part of creating that puzzle is constructing both conscious and unconscious reasons for character actions. Unconscious motivations that drive character behavior are important parts of character development.
Unconscious motivation refers to unknown desires or needs that are the real reasons for things people do. Sigmund Freud believed that the mind is like an iceberg. Only a small part is revealed to conscious awareness, while the bigger reasons for actions lie beneath the surface. Abraham Maslow said that unconscious motives take a central role in determining how people behave. Often it is unconscious rather than conscious motives that direct human behavior. Understanding the unconscious motivations of your characters will ensure that their actions make sense. What better way to create a mystery puzzle than delving into these deeply hidden motivations. How is it done?
To understand your character’s unconscious motivations you must create a background of experiences that will fit his/her behavior patterns. In creating this background, consider:
• Things that happened in early and late childhood.
• Traumatic or hurtful life experiences foist upon your character by another person or event.
• Unkind or hurtful things your character may have caused to someone else.
Show the impact of these motivations on your character’s behavior:
• Make your character unaware of unconscious motives driving his actions.
She might be terrified of dogs without remembering that she’d once been bitten by one.
She might continually straighten or organize her environment without remembering her demanding father’s insistence on perfect order.
• Create a process by which your character begins to discover the unconscious desires that drive his/her behavior.
• Pepper your story with scenes in which your character is in denial, rationalizing, projecting his/her motives on another story person, acting out for some unknown reason, idealizing an unworthy character or repressing a terrible experience in order to do what needs to be done.
• Another effective tension-producing writing strategy is reaction formation. Your character converts unconscious impulses to something completely opposite: A woman who fears her frequent fantasies about having sex with strange men becomes frigid.
Examination of unconscious motivations will produce tension-filled mystery story scenes that will keep readers turning pages.