Being a Better Writer: Character Motivations

Why do your characters do what they do?

It seems like a simple question. And, likewise, a simple answer. Why do they do what they do? Because they want to.

Okay, but why?

Character motivation is one of those topics that seems pretty straightforward. You have a character, and you want them to do something, so they need a reason to do it, right?

Well … hopefully, yes. But in practice, is that what’s going on in our writing? Does our character really have motivation … or are we just putting them in a position to do something by necessity, or where they’ll go along with the flow?

Yes, this is a basic topic. But it’s one that feels justified simply because it can become a major stumbling block for newer writers. Often I’ve picked up a story about some characters setting out on a globe-trotting adventure only to wonder halfway through the opening chapter “Okay, but why?” because the author was so keen on getting to the adventure that they neglected to put much work into explaining how the character got there in the first place. Which isn’t to say that the motive may not have been there, just that the author neglected to mention it or explain it fully.

Right, so two possible problems, there. The first is that the author isn’t giving their characters enough motivation. The second is that even when they are, they aren’t explaining them adequately. So, what can we do about that?

The first fix is pretty obvious. It’s not enough to simply drop a character into a situation and then have them do stuff if you’re not going to give them a reason for doing so, not if you want a character that seems real and fleshed out, three-dimensional, if you will.

No, a character needs motive. They need an objective. A goal. A line of reasoning.

This starts simple (and should start simple). For example, you can start with one simple line to give your character motivation. For example, if you wanted to write a story about a woman who becomes a powerful sorceress in some fantasy land, you could make the initial motivation “Wants to become a powerful sorceress.” For the first little bit, the pre-planning stages where you’re just putting together the overall gist, that will get you by.

But then, once you want to go further into things, is that motivation enough? Well … not really. What’s there is a baseline, a guidepost, but in the end of the day it’s not enough motivation for a character. You need to be asking more detailed questions about this character. Why do they want to be a powerful sorceress? What drives them to have that goal? What are they willing to do to achieve that goal? What will they not do?

See, the starting point, that initial goal of “Become a powerful sorceress” is a starting point, something that you want to design some basic elements around. Once you move forward however, you’re going to want to flesh out the details of that goal with respect to the character’s personality. Because a woman who is stubborn, prideful, and striving for personal accomplishment will take a very different approach to accomplishing that goal than a young woman who is quiet, a little unsure about her place in the world, but wants to be powerful so that she can use her abilities to help her childhood home.

Now, some of you might be saying “Wait, this sounds a lot like character design.” And it is, don’t misunderstand. It’s a facet of that process.

At the same time, however, you need to be considering your character’s motivation through the whole process because what their motivation is, combined with what their personality is like, will drive a good chunk of your story.

For example, suppose you wanted a story that was going to teach about the dangers of hubris. You wanted a character that was striving for a goal only to reach too hard and too fast and end up falling and learning some humility.

Could you do that with both of the character motivations we outlined above? Well, yes, we could. But how would the story change with one or the other?

The point I want to make here is that your character’s choices and actions both are going to be influenced by their motivation combined with their personality. Remember how I said we needed the why, what, and do behind the goal above? Those will drive a portion of your story, and most importantly, some of the choices that your character makes. If you want to write an action-fueled story, certain motivations are going to lend themselves better to that than a thought-provoking story of some kind.

Now, there’s more to this than coming up with the motivation of your primary character. Do you have an antagonist? Better give them some motivation to, with the amount of motivation based on how much of a part you want them to play in the story.

If you take out motivation, or neglect this step, what you can end up with is a character that feels shiftless, like they’re going with the flow of whatever happens in the story. And that’s not really great for character-arcs (unless the point of the story is for them to acquire a motivation, which if so … is the motivation, just hidden).

So, when you’re starting out with a project, especially as a new writer, don’t just think about the story you want to tell, think about why that story will happen the way you want it to happen. Think about the motives and motivation behind your characters, what they’re striving for and trying to accomplish, and how that’s going to weave into the plot you want to tell. Don’t just have the characters stumble from moment to moment, give them a drive, a motivation that fits the narrative you want to explore and enhances it!

Now, that said, there was a second point to bring up. It’s not enough to simply have a motivation. Of the two points that were outlined earlier, coming up with motivation is usually the easy one. The second one, however, can be hard. Why? Because it’s making sure that the whole motivation you’ve cooked up, the goals, aspirations, and objectives, that all of that gets conveyed to the reader.

Before, when I spoke of reading opening chapters where there wasn’t any motivation? Odds were, that wasn’t always the case. I’m sure that in many of those cases, the author had thought “Hey, this character wants to go here and do this” and put that into their design. The problem wasn’t that the character didn’t have motivation. It was that the author wasn’t conveying it to the reader.

This is tricky. A lot of authors (both early and successful) will just outright go the tell route with this approach, having the narration info-dump a character’s motivation and goals. And sure, you can go this route. After all, it does give the reader a character’s motivations, and that can clear up this problem.

But what if you don’t want to go that route, and would rather show a character’s motivations than just flat tell the audience? Well, you’re going to have to do a little work for that. You’ll need to make sure that the early chapter or chapters give enough of a window into the character’s mindset that we can see what their goals are … and don’t forget the why!

To use a recent example of strong storytelling, for example, take Zootopia. That film could have opened with the primary character doing the “tell” thing and narrating “Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a cop.”

But that wasn’t the route that the film wanted to go, so instead, it started by showing us Judy when she was younger, wanting to be a cop … and then showed us why she wanted to be a cop with her actions, ending on the vocalization that she wants to make the world a better place.

So, how will you do that in your writing? Well, that’s up to you, but as pointed out, you’re going to need to consciously devote some attention to that aspect of the story. If you want to show a character’s motivation, you’re going to need to give it time and space to happen, as opposed to just dropping a quick paragraph outlining it.

Which do you do? That’s up to you. Personally, I prefer showing a character’s motivation (or better yet, showing all the pieces that go into the character’s motivation, but letting the reader put together some aspects of it rather than ever directly declaring it), as it makes a character feel organic, like someone you’re starting to understand or getting to know.

And that’s something we want. We want our readers to feel like the characters they’re reading about are more than just words on a page. We want them to see them as living, breathing beings, beings they can be friends with. Real people (or aliens, dragons, or whatever).

Having motivation and showing it is part of that. Think of those around you. Think of yourself. What goals and aspirations do you have? Those around you? How does that influence the path you take through life?

Let your characters have the same driving force. Give them motivations, a reason to go out and slay (or befriend) that dragon. To want that job or career they’re striving for. To make that journey.

Now, one last note here. When doing all that; when figuring out motivations, don’t be afraid of making them “cliche.” Relax. It’s okay to have a character who wants to accomplish something that seems “old,” and perhaps even “trite.” The explanations of “I want to protect people” or “I want a family” or even “I want money/power” are 100% fine. Do you know why they’re old? Because people have been being driven by those motivations for thousands of years. They still drive people. Don’t worry about your starting motivation ever being “too cliche.” Instead focus on telling the story well (and maybe not making that completely by the numbers).

So, you’ve got your motivation. Now go out and give your characters their’s.

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