Book Club Guest Blog: Motives, A Character Discussion

January 13, 2012 at 10:33 am , by

This week’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In the LHJ Book Club pick for February, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, author Elizabeth Stuckey-French explores the motives that propel her characters to act in very strange ways in this wonderfully quirky novel. The main character, Marylou, is a woman hell-bent on exacting revenge for a secret government medical study that caused the death of her eight-year-old daughter.

Motives are a critical component in character development for compelling story telling, and in a book club setting, one of the most important focuses of discussion.  A gifted author skillfully develops characters that intrigue us, and keep us turning the pages to find out the “why” behind the characters’ actions. Similarly, a good writer will allow the characters’ motives to unfold in a way that, even if we find their actions morally questionable at the beginning of the book, we will gradually start to understand them, sympathize with them and, usually, forgive them for their flaws.

These descriptions of the characters in The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady are followed by brief excerpts that provide glimpses into the real emotions underlying the motives of each of Stuckey-French’s characters. This is a technique you can use as a tool to provoke fascinating book-club discussions of almost any title.

Marylou’s Motive: Revenge

Marylou’s underlying emotions of deep anger, grief, and loneliness stem from the loss of her daughter to bone cancer because of a ghastly radioactive cocktail she was instructed to drink during her pregnancy.

Desperation was the mother of invention. By the time she got back to Reeve’s Court, Marylou had devised a brand-new attack plan. She would continue with her efforts to make Wilson remember and apologize, but she would also take steps to destroy his family, the way he’s destroyed hers. It would surely make him miserable to watch his family suffer, the way she’d had to watch Helen and Teddy suffer.

Ava’s Motive:  Acceptance

Ava is admired for her beauty, but overprotected and misunderstood because of her Asperger’s Syndrome, she is desperate to be independent and live a life of relative normalcy.

It was depressing to realize that she didn’t fit in here, and she sure didn’t fit in with the so-called typical people. So what was left? Living with her mother for the rest of her life? She’d rather kill herself.

Suzi’s Motive:  Attention

Young Suzi is desperate for attention.  Lacking the love she needs from her mother, she is easily seduced into Marylou’s scheme.

Why couldn’t it be Mom sitting there, watching her? Mom, as usual, had better things to do. She had to take Ava to support group and then out to lunch so Ava would feel good about herself even though she had to go to support group. You had to be autistic—and whine about it—to get her mother’s attention.

Otis’ Motive: Respect

With his grandfather, Dr. Wilson Spriggs, as a role model and constant support, Otis aims to overcome his outcast status by becoming a world-respected scientist.

When he was done building his model breeder reactor—the youngest person ever to build one, the only civilian ever to build one—then he could make time to go out to parties. People would be having parties in his honor!

Caroline Motive: Self-Loathing

Caroline resents everyone, but mostly herself. Surrendering to her menopausal hormones, she is no longer able to control her deep-rooted feelings of anger and abandonment by her mother.

She was tired of being awful to those she loved, but since she couldn’t stop being awful, the only alternative was to get away from all of them. Leave them far behind so as not to expose them to her anger. Maybe this is how her own mother had felt—that her family would be better off without her.

Vic’s Motive:  Distraction

By distracting himself by obsessing over the development of a new educational testing system, tracking hurricanes, and entertaining ideas of an affair, Vic tries to escape the boredom and inadequacy he feels in his failing marriage and dysfunctional children.

He was sorry that poor Wilson had come to live with them and that poor Ava and Otis had Asperger’s and sorry that his marriage had had gone south and that he missed the days when it was just him and Caroline and sorry because Caroline felt so besieged and the he felt so inadequate that he was counting on a hurricane to blow their problems away.

Wilson’s Motive: Guilt

Using his dementia as a convenient veil of denial, Wilson refuses to own up to the horrific damages his medical study caused in the lives of hundreds of women and children.

Rather than demonstrating that there wasn’t much problem with his memory, as far as the study went, which would put him in the position of admitting he’d only been pretending not to remember, he told her instead about the time in his life he remembered best.


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