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Motive/Motif: Theme and Character development in a Mystery

In the mystery genre, the major theme, or the underlying idea an author conveys, can almost always be crime does not pay. However, after a writers workshop on motifs, I've concluded that minor themes and their motifs, (recurring images, objects or ideas that highlight the theme), can lead to greater understanding of the story's overall meaning as well as develop its characters.

In ONE DROP, sister and brother Ladonis and HeartTrouble are reluctant sleuths in contemporary New Orleans. Ladonis, armed with a MBA and what her younger brother calls a high falootin' corporate job, gets entangled in the middle of murder and mayhem, supposedly to help her co-worker, but more than likely to propel her up the corporate ladder. Only she needs her high-school dropout, small-time con-artist brother, HeartTrouble, to help her find her way out of a hotbed of criminal activity.

While the plot turns the siblings and the readers into detectives vying to solve a traditional mystery puzzle and figure out whodunnit, the minor theme, "family" can be described as this story's heartbeat. Throughout the twists and turns, the sibling rivalry between the main characters intensifies the red herrings and ups the suspense as well as the impact of resolution for readers. In fact, all action is incumbent upon an in-your-face argument between HeartTrouble and Ladonis. (motive)

"If you got half a brain, which you act like you ain't sometimes," HeartTrouble said to his sister. "You'd go out and buy that plywood like I've been tellin' you to do and board up all these glass doors and windows you got in this place. That Katrina storm supposed to be the real deal. That makes Katrina more important than some white girl."

"Boy, move out my way. I have to find out what happened."

These kind of salient dialogue interactions occur throughout the story, particularly when Ladonis seeks to engage her brother in what he calls, white-folk shit. (motif) The arguments not only highlight individual character traits of Ladonis and HeartTrouble, but also show readers the impact their sibling rivalry has on the nature of their family dynamic, which is, despite differences they are there for one another. (theme)

Although I'd learned the difference between motif and and motive, it wasn't until the topic came up in my writer's workshop that I realized I'd captured the concept in ONE DROP. The experience reminded the writer in me that there are just as many ways to capture a writing concept as there are stories to tell. For example, no matter how many times, I read or watch Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREDJUDICE, there is always something new for me to learn either about a character, theme or about the plot. Another reason to keep writing mysteries and to keep reading literature. There's always something to learn from the motives and motifs of life's realities.

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I always like the use of motifs and symbols although the two are different tools in the writer’s palette of painting themes in the literary story. The use motif of ‘rabbits’ in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is one of my favorite examples. Motives reveal character traits that can be woven into the story to help us understand the character.

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