So many good comments! Thank you all so much. I appreciate each person taking the time to post.
Overall, the character’s motivation is important, I agree—no, let me make that crucial. Without it, you’d have no story. It’s like … the use of light and shadow and color in a painting.
I’m not always good at hammering this sort of thing down for my own stories, however. Anyone else’s, I can do—although admittedly I’ve hated doing literary analysis and still am at a loss many times when it comes to quantifying what makes a story “work” for me. It’s been difficult, then, to figure out how much is just density on my part, or if there really is a certain amount of flexibility allowed in the early stages of certain story structures, specifically in Hero’s Journey—which was the subject of my original question to Writer Friend #1. In Hero’s Journey, you have a character plucked from ordinary life into some grand adventure—an adventure that he mostly likely isn’t thrilled about, at the outset. Frodo and the Ring is a good example. Frodo didn’t have any grand goals, any burning desires (except maybe for some good pipeweed) … until the nasty business of the Ring was thrust upon him.
Now, I realize that writing fashions have changed, and it's no longer considered proper to start modern works with a whole chapter on “Concerning Hobbits” … but time after time I’ve picked up fairly new SF/F in the bookstore and find … description, backstory, the main character going about everyday life. (Yes, I plan to put this to the test again the next time I visit the bookstore, and watch me be wrong just because I’ve slapped the words out here for all the Internet to see.)
Another example of this is seen in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, where we see Luke Skywalker at home on his uncle’s ranch, with no greater immediate ambition but to finish his chores as quickly as possible and then go hang out in town. We don’t find out until a bit later of his deep longing to leave his homeworld and be—something more than a Tatooine farm boy.
Anyway, I’m not discounting that part of my disgruntlement over this is probably due to the lingering sting from all the Genesis contest feedback. It was a wonder and a marvel that I finaled, and I’m still in awe that such a thing happened, and that I wound up with critiques from at least three authors that I greatly respect and enjoy. But they were hard to receive … hard … knowing as I did that all the explanation for the context of the story lay just beyond the cutoff point of the contest entry, and that I should have known to work it in for the contest if nothing else. (Yes, I was shocked the first time I found out that writers often tweak a submission just for a contest …)
But it’s made me think long and hard about why I wrote the beginning of Gift the way I did. I realized that I’d had the mantras about backstory so beaten into my head—don’t dump it all at the beginning, work it in by shreds, make chapter one all action then introduce backstory in chapter two—that I completely stripped out all backstory, with the exception of a couple of small comments, until the middle of the second chapter. This approach works well for some of my readers, but others were frustrated that there was no frame of reference for context until later, and no immediate sense of overarching motivation in my main characters.
After having several weeks to think it all through, and getting some helpful suggestions from a handful who have read the story in its entirety (and let me tell you, all of this has made me think hard about who to choose as critiquers for my next story!), I think I have some solid ideas on how to remedy this in the next revision.
But it still all feels, well, a bit artificial to me. :-)