Today I will be talking about character motivation, a topic suggested by one of my readers, Ann Harrison-Barnes who is also an author. Thank you for the suggestion, Ann.
Character motivation is important to any story. It is what drives your character to set goals and to take action. It is the reason why he or she behaves the way that they do.
Your character’s motivations come from their deepest needs and desires. Your character’s motivations also create emotional connections with your readers. If you can put your readers in your character’s shoes, they will definitely keep turning pages.
I believe it is important to determine your character’s motivations before you begin writing your story. Determining your character’s motivations should be done while you are determining and writing their back story because their motivation might be caused by something from their back story.
It is important to know your characters inside and out, which is why you need to create back stories for your characters. (We’ll talk about back story here on July 9th.)
Your character’s motivations will be determined the choices they make and whether they will be a good guy or a bad guy.
A character’s motivation is often caused by something they are dissatisfied with in their life or something they feel is missing from their life.
There are two kinds of motivation: external and internal.
External motivations are physical. Some examples include: physical needs — food, clothing, water, shelter; protection from an enemy or abuser; rescuing a family member or the love of their life from someone or something that poses a threat; surviving a natural disaster, etc.
Internal motivations happen within a character. These things may effect a character’s mindset, beliefs, or emotions. These things can be caused by a need for personal fulfillment — examples: to find love or friendship; to seek vengeance for a wrong done to themselves or someone they love (movie examples of this would be the “Die Hard” series where Bruce Willis’s character must save his wife’s life in one movie and his daughter’s life in another or the “Taken” series where Liam Neeson’s character must rescue his daughters from sex-slave traffickers in the first movie, and try to escape the men who have taken him and his wife as hostages in Istanbul in the second movie); to achieve their life’s passion, etc.
These could also be caused by fear or peer pressure — examples: To fit in with their peers or the “popular” crowd; to live up to family or societal expectations, etc.
These could also be caused by curiosity — examples: to solve a problem; to learn something new; to explore a new adventure — to go on an adventure, etc.
These things could also be caused by guilt or insecurity — examples: to gain self-confidence; to right a wrong they have done to someone; to overcome a bad habit, etc.
While determining your character’s motivations, you should consider asking yourself the following questions:
- How is my character dissatisfied with life?
- What events led my character to become dissatisfied in this way? Was it their upbringing? A bad life choice? The result of a specific relationship?
- What has kept my character from taking action to overcome this dissatisfaction? Money, time, fear, expectation, or something else? (A good movie example of this would be “It’s a Wonderful Life”, when George doesn’t get out of Bedford Falls to follow his dream because he feels an obligation to his family and his family’s business).
- What will finally push my character to action? In what situation would the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action?
- What does my character’s motivation reveal about who they are? What does it say about their personality, back story, fears, desires, world views?
- Have other characters in my story experienced the same source of motivation? If so, what actions have they taken? Do their actions differ from those of my main character, and if so, what does that reveal?
- How might my character’s motivations change throughout the story? What will my characters learn as they achieve their goal? Will grow as people or fall victim to doubt or fear? Will this change alter their actions in my story?
Your character’s motivation can create tension in your story. You need to understand why your character needs to achieve their goal and what will happen if they don’t. Your character needs a strong reason to take action — strong enough that they will face their biggest fears, doubts, and insecurities.
Whether they succeed or fail, your character’s motivations will drive the events of the story and your character will grow and change throughout your story.
Your character’s motivations must engage your readers and keep your plot moving forward.
I got a lot of this information from this blog. It included a reference to “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”.
I would have liked to use my notes from a workshop I attended at a writer’s conference several years ago on this subject, but was unable to locate them, but the author who taught that workshop asked us what the main character’s motivation is in our WIP (work in progress), and if he didn’t think our answer was specific enough, he made us dig deeper to get to the root of the motivation. That’s why I stress the need for creating your character’s back story in before determining their motivations.
Feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, and questions in the comments sections below. I always respond to all thoughts, comments, and questions.