I enjoy the reality show Survivor because the players are constantly working towards goals. From the beginning, they try to form alliances that they feel will benefit them as they play the game. The motive is to create a voting block that will keep them on day after day.
They also have to build shelter and fire in order to survive the elements and to eat. On many days they compete in games that test physical stamina as well as the ability to outwit a mental challenge. The motive to win is huge. Not just for the glory of winning, but to get the prize, which can be in the form of food, means of survival, as well as not being forced to vote someone off of the team.
Ulterior motives are not just the thing of games, but of real life. We perform for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we do things just because we want to, but many times it’s because we yearn for something in return.
For example, a person runs for elected office in order to win, not just to see their name in the news and on the ballot.
The dating game is all about ulterior motives. Two strangers meet, size each other up, talk a bit to establish if there are any common grounds, all with the motive of going out on a date. The eventual outcome could be falling in love and getting married.
Our characters must also have ulterior motives or they are not fully developed. Three-dimensional people make decisions based on perceived outcomes. So must your characters.
Let’s say you’re writing a thriller in which someone dies. Why? What was the purpose of the death? Is your character the murderer or the one who will solve the crime? In order to find out who did it, the detective must be able to analyze the motive for the crime.
Your task is to take something that you’ve written and reread, looking for places where ulterior motive drives the action. If you cannot find any, then you must rewrite.
Start with the first page. Somewhere within those words the reader needs to understand what drives the main character to action. If that information is missing, put it in.
But don’t stop there. Throughout the piece we need to see the motives change as the situation changes. Don’t barrage us with motives, but find a way to keep us informed.
Seeing motive unfold drives the story forward and keeps the reader entranced.
Have fun with this one!