What Writers Can Learn From Economics

When you look at the world through the eyes of an economist like John List, you realize that many seemingly altruistic acts no longer seem so altruistic.” Levitt & Dubner Superfreakonomics

Motivations are the key to any narrative.  Get them right and readers will empathise with your character’s desires.  Get them wrong and readers disengage early on.  While reading Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the fantastic Freakonomics, the importance of motivations in economics struck me as a great lesson for writers.

Economists argue that most human actions involve a selfish motivation.  Without this coloration in your story, you risk breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  Take a movie everyone has seen: Star WarsWho is more realistic?  Luke Skywalker, who embarks on a quest to save a beautiful princess, or Han Solo, who takes a dangerous job for the promise of money.

Although Luke has some other motivations, revenge for the murder of his aunt, uncle and father, his initial crowing about wanting to join the Rebel Alliance comes across as immature.  This is excusable given the character’s age but would be weak as the only motivation in a narrative.

Han on the other hand is balancing the pros and cons: does he continue to be hunted, facing death in every bar and space port, or does he accept a job which when complete would enable him to pay his debt?  This type of motivation is one that most viewers can relate to because we make this sort of choice every day, although hopefully in less extreme circumstances.

As the quote above says, even the kindest act must have some selfish motivation.  If your protagonist is rushing into danger, is he doing it for a good reason?  Remember, being a hero is not a motivation it is a result: doing the right thing is not reason enough for most actions.

What books or movies can you think of that contain unrealistic motivations?

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