Character Motivations in Writing: A Case Study of The Hate U Give (Not Horror)

the hate u give book writingHi, spooky ones! While this blog will be mostly horror and fantasy, I think it’s important to take elements from other genre fiction and see how they effectively execute certain elements. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is a Young Adult Contemporary novel about a girl, Starr Carter, who witnesses the death of her unarmed childhood friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer.

Warning: This will have spoilers for the book. It will also discuss racism and violence.

While not labeled horror, the situation is horrifying and tense throughout as you watch Starr deal with her grief of both Khalil’s death and the death of another childhood friend, Natasha, when she was killed a few years ago in front of Starr by a gang member. She has to adjust to┬álife while also being the witness of a tragedy that is making the news, but no one in her life beyond her family in friends in Garden Heights know her role. Starr has a vibrant internal voice, but at her private school, she code-switches and keeps her passion at bay to keep herself safe and to not be called “angry” or “ghetto.” Her life is also in danger as the situation escalates.

Admittedly, I don’t read many contemporary novels, or YA. When I do read YA, it tends to be fantasy, but with the exception of works like The Wrath and the Dawn and Cruel Beauty, I find myself disillusioned with many of the tropes. To me, The Hate U Give is what I want most YA to be. contemporary, fantasy, or otherwise. It does something I rarely see in stories about teenage protagonists: the parents are fully realized, active characters. This is where I get to character motivations. In previous posts, I spoke about the protagonist, but it is essential to realize that other characters who are active in your protagonist’s life as wants and obstacles. Rather than letting this scare you, let it make your story better. Without Starr’s parents, the story, while potent, would lack a certain emotional core.

Starr’s father, Maverick, manages the community grocery store. He is a former King Lord. (Garden Heights, Starr’s home, has two rival gangs: the King Lords and the Garden Disciples.) He spent three years in prison for taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, which meant that for a few years of Starr’s life, he was absent besides phone calls. This caused Starr to view her mother’s brother, Uncle Carlos, as her father until her dad left prison. He is dedicated to supporting his family, and he has a steely sense of justice, wanting to stay in the community because, though his family deals with growing scorn and scrutiny, especially after Khalil’s death and Starr’s role comes to light, he wants to better the community and his people.

Lisa, Starr’s mother, is a hardworking nurse who wants her children to be safe, which makes her want to leave Garden Heights with her family. She also provides advice, strength, and compassion to her grieving daughter, and it’s the support of both of Starr’s parents that compels much of the narrative, at least for me. Both of the parents, active and flawed, have the same goal, but with a different idea of what will help their family. Maverick wants to stay at Garden Heights to better the community, and Lisa wants to leave, afraid for her family’s safety. Their love for each other and their family and their ensuing disagreements create tension and investment when it seems as if, during this heated time, their marriage may collapse. Ultimately, both of Starr’s parents are fully realized characters with complex motivations.

The lesson is this: Don’t just give your main character needs and wants. The main conflict will involve your characters’ goal and the obstacles in their way, but for a fully realized world, consider what your other characters are fighting for and how this affects the main character and the primary conflict. This not only makes the world fully realized, but makes your character more grounded and complex when you show how their relationships and the conflicting motivations increase the tension.

That’s all I have for now, bats, ghouls, and nonbinary spirits. Have you read The Hate U Give? Are you excited for the film? What are some ways you work to flesh out the characters surrounding your protagonist?

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