How To Write A Great Character Motivation

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The central question of any character motivation is why. Why do characters act the way they do? The key to writing a great character motivation is answering this question in a way that’s both logical and emotionally satisfying. To write a great character motivation, you’ll want to consider how your character’s past, present, and future intersect, and how their desires and fears have shaped their decisions. When you’re done, you’ll have a compelling, believable motivation that will make your character a person your readers can root for.


Tension and lack of motivation can cause plot holes

The plot holes in your novel can be traced back to a lack of motivation in one of the two conflicting characters. Neither of them has sufficient motivation to challenge or be challenged. Think about what happens in your favorite action movie. What’s the motivation that causes each of the opposing characters to act? In the movie Die Hard, it’s a terrorist attack on an important building. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s the devious power of an evil ring. A lack of motivation is one of the most unintentional mistakes a writer can make in his or her manuscript. But if you can find the source of the problem and fix it, motivation will write a good book for you. Principles aren’t enough, though. You have to know how to make sure your hero is motivated, and how to find out once you’ve filled in all the blanks.

Every hero has a secret motivation. Conflicts can arise from a number of different sources, but one of the most compelling ones is something buried deep within a hero, something from their darkest past. It can make them do things they never thought they would. You can show it through dialogue and internal monologues. You can hint at it, and then reveal it in a climactic moment. You can add in points of view from supporting characters that somehow show more than they’re saying. Maybe they know what the secret motivation of the main character is, and it’s affecting their actions. Thinking about this, you start to see how motivation can be used to connect the relevant plot points in your narrative. The rules of screenwriting back this up, and knowing about them will strengthen your understanding of how to write a great character motivation line-by-line. Those rules may be applicable to novels, but it’s not always so cut-and-dry. Follow your instincts as a writer and find your own way down this road, from your original idea to the finished product. This way you’ll also turn your idea into an original work.

Strip your character down to basics

If you want to write a character motivation that’s real and compelling, you first have to look at the core of who they are. What drives them? What do they need? What have they lost? Start by poring over old diaries entries, rereading old emails, photographs, or letters. What changes did you see your character go through? What situations did they react to in particularly strong ways? What are their defining characteristics and how have their motivations changed over time? By answering these questions, you’ll have a good idea of who your character is – their personality, their outlook on life, and the simple things about them that define how they see the world. You’ll also get a clearer sense of what matters most to your character, and how the past and the present influence their present-day decisions. With this understanding, and your character’s backstory in mind, you can start to see their ultimate goals.

Reaching goals should be the driving force of your character’s motivation. And when you write character motivations, you’re looking at how your character moves from their starting point to a goal. Are they complicating things on purpose, or are they really trying to reach something? If so, what does reaching that goal mean for them? People should make decisions based on self-interest, and motivation is the invisible hand that steers them into action. The self-interest isn’t necessarily a noble one – a character motivation can be noble and selfish, complicated and simple. The key is to keep them moving towards a goal that has emotional resonance for them, and to make sure the dichotomy between the character’s motivation and their actions is clear.

Make every character want something

A character who does nothing is an ineffective character. A character without motivation is empty because they do not have the inner spark that drives them to action. A character who only does what they are forced to do is not a character — they are a plank of wood with no ability to make moral decisions. And while a character without motivation could exist, probably nobody would want to read such a character. Because of this, motivation is the first building block of fiction. What does your character want? Once you have secured this, you can develop everything from action to inner reflection to help further motivate that driving force.

If you’re still not sure what your character wants, ask yourself a set of four questions. First, what are your character’s basic needs and wants? Have you created an inventory of the demands that your character makes on the world around them, so that you can make sure they get what they need? Which of those basic needs and wants are desperate drives, and which are modest ambitions? Can you create sub motivations for your character, to keep them driving forward when their primary motivation has been fulfilled? Next, you’ll need to make checks for what your character is willing to risk to get what they want. Perhaps they must take risks to get what they want — but what are they willing to sacrifice to get or keep it? Is there anything they will not pay the price to get or to keep? With your character’s wants and imperatives laid out, it’s time to figure out what they’re afraid of. Identifying your character’s fears is a critical part of characterization, because it’s hard to motivate someone without understanding what motivates them.

Find deeper motivations behind what readers see

While the most superficial reflection of character motivation is what readers see, you want to go deeper than just what we are shown. Delving into private thoughts allows you to craft more nuanced motivations that impact character actions. As authors, we are privy to what’s called a “deep POV” and from this perspective, we get a glimpse at the hopes and fears driving a character’s behavior. Emotionally driven actions drive plot, and conflict drives character. Everything happens because of these motivations. If your character isn’t motivated, then there is no reason for the action, and a shallow story ensues. Conversely, a well-motivated character that lies behind these surface motivations produces compelling actions, engagement, and empathy.

So how can you go about dissecting a character’s motivations? Distilling motivation is a process, more so than finding the motivation in the first place. Getting to the core of motivation requires you to map out the where and why of a character’s action from their own private viewpoint. By getting to know your characters this way, you also end up getting to know yourself, and the core of motivation underlying your characters may also reflect what informs your own inspirations and ultimate purpose in creating art. Go deeper in your characters, because authors feel deeper when they write.

Make your characters’ flaws their greatest strengths

It’s not always possible to make all your characters fully-realized individuals with abilities and flaws that ultimately contribute to the resolution of your plot. However, if you want to write well-rounded characters, it’s important to remember that each of them needs motivation. One way to bring a character motivation out of even the most two-dimensional character is to surround them with flaws. This gives them a driving internal conflict with multiple layers that drives their decisions and actions. Each other character in the story will be impacted by this conflict, whether they realize it or not, which means the motivations of everyone in the story matter. Make sure each of your characters are defined by what they do, not just what they mean to do. That is, the actions of your characters should illuminate their motivations, rather than their motivations existing separately from the actions they take. With a perfect balance of action and dialogue/internal thought, you can not only tip a character motivation toward your plot — but in all likelihood, create a well-rounded, three-dimensional character as well.

Related to this, don’t shy away from making some of your characters seem slightly negative, even if you ultimately intend to redeem those qualities and show them in a positive light. For example, Harry Potter as much as we love him, is arrogant, disrespectful, and condescending — in other words, just a little villainous. As he discovers his true identity in the wizarding world, his motivation drives him to save other people, even though in some ways he wants to do so because it will give him greater power. He is shown over the course of the series to grow out of his worst qualities, and it’s gradual, which makes it more realistic than if the continuous yet often subtle bad in his character was remedied all at once. This does not quiet, of course, the urge to follow Mark Twain’s advice to be a good guy, which often comes in handy. Finally, it’s worth noting that if you are writing characters who are already sensitively written and motivated, you don’t need to withhold it in some attempt to purposefully slow things down. Think of it this way — if you took a gorgeous spring bouquet to someplace dark and gloomy, wouldn’t you still want to flaunt it? Your writing should be your greatest flower.

Make characters conscious of their motivations

If you want to write a great character motivation, you have to make sure your character is consciously aware of it. After all, if your character doesn’t understand or acknowledge their motives, they can’t make decisions based on those motives. For example, if your character is motivated by a burning desire to save the world, but the character doesn’t realize they want to save the world, they won’t do anything with that motivation. It’s not that you can’t write about hidden motivations, it’s that your character isn’t likely to act with the same force and determination. That can be fine if that’s your intention — consider Magneto’s inability to acknowledge his feelings toward his daughter as an example of a character trying to fight his most powerful motivations, even if they remain beneath the surface of his personality and he doesn’t know it. But if that’s not what you’re going for, it’s important to keep this step of writing a great motivation in mind.

Therefore, to write a good character motivation, you have to make the motivation conscious to the character. Whether the character is aware of their motivation at the beginning of the story or only realizes it at the end, neither choice is wrong. Conscious motivation is useful because it means you can deepen your plot and characterization by opening up plot holes if your character never realizes the truth, as well as use moments in other people’s reactions for interesting subtext if your character does learn the truth of their motivation later on. Either way, the key is just to make sure to make your character aware of their driving motivation.

Show motivation through actions

Motivation is key to a character and their actions in a book, but it should never manifest solely in an internal monologue. Many novice writers fall into the trap of giving justifications, excuses, and poor rationales for a character’s behavior without making them feel motivated to act. A character’s motivation can’t always be boiled down to a sentence, but it should always be a driving force that guides the story. Aim to make your motivation clear by making it active. At their core, all good stories are about actions, and it’s those actions that give rise to motivation. If the main character intended on doing one thing before being swayed by a secondary character, their motivation arises from those actions. It can emerge as a fault, a habit, a wound, or a fear, but it’s most effective when it’s shown through action — a choice.

The same way motivations give rise to action, characters respond to their motivations through action. Forcing a character to act solely because of their motivation is most effective when they’re driven by negative motivations. This makes it entirely organic for a main character to respond antagonistically, aggressively, or confrontationally to another character and gets the plot rolling. Think about their backstory, their experiences, and their moral struggles — all of these elements will inform how a character will demonstrate their motivation in a scene, and which other characters they’ll respond to with hostility. It can be difficult to consistently give your characters these negative motives, but there are some tried-and-true methods for doing so. One method is to put them in a tough situation that’s framed like a moral issue, which forces a wrong choice. Another is to put them in a conflict over goals that they’re just not going to give away. Still another is to challenge them with an obstinate character they’re hoping to avoid. Try to get more creative with this step and think of ways to push your characters further into difficult moral situations, in order to challenge themselves to see what they’ll do and what they’re capable of. This will improve characterization and make them more relatable, likeable, and memorable.

Create obstacles that test character motivation

Part of how to create compelling and believable character motivation is to make something difficult for them. Doing so creates obstacles which will drive their behavior, make them stressed, frustrated, and flat-out ticked off — and it should, because obstacles create conflict, and conflict makes readers turn the page. The key to good characterization is take the character on something of a journey — to help them grow and change, one way or another. Any good character motivation must account for both internal and external conflicts, but external conflicts are easier to grasp — they’re an obstacle against the world, or against the character’s desires. An internal conflict, meanwhile, is about something contained within the character — it might come from something that happened early in their lives. What matters most is that whatever type of conflict a character experiences, the reader can enjoy it, understand it, and empathize with it.

Also worth noting is that a conflict is seldom what it seems at first — it may present one obstacle from one direction, but a reader will empathize more with a person if there’s more to it than that. Perhaps it’s a love interest who holds an opposing personality trait — it might be deeply challenging to navigate a courtship while trying to make sure the other person doesn’t learn to like you too much. Or maybe it’s a baddie who goes through an arc — start with someone waiting for their parents to return, and then meet the parents as humans, rather than types who are trying to kill their kid. Once you’ve decided which type of flaws you want to give your characters, consider which characteristic is most important to their development. Is it their loyalty, tenacity, love, honor, ambition, or something else? What would motivate them to reflect on it, and what would be the catalysts for their transformation?

Explore why a character chooses this path

Having a complex motivation for your character means looking at their past, present, and future, and then building an ensemble of events that would logically direct them to their goal. They’re personal motivations, yes, but often, they’re still part of a larger, societal need. A great motivation needs to connect to the context of the situation your character is in. For example, if your exiled king returns to his country to claim his rightful place, his motivation is not just to claim his kingdom, but to rejoin his family and people. Similarly, if a young man disguises himself to enter a religious school, his desire to achieve personal revenge might be balanced with a sacred vow to keep his identity a secret. Why? Because he promised his best friend he wouldn’t reveal himself. It’s the past, present, and future that create a character arc, and a complex motivation is often the key to getting your character there.

What’s going on in your character’s life that’s relevant to their motivation? What are the characters they’ve met? What do they know about the world? This is especially true when writing a historical fiction or a fantasy — the more worldbuilding details and plot concerns you can add, the more connected your character will feel and the more brains your readers will have to think with. Asking and answering these questions will help weave together context, identity, and logic, leaving you with not only a fully motivated character, but a purposeful, personalized experience for the audience.

Be consistent

It’s important to know a little bit about the different types of motivation. Internal motivation isn’t so much related to the plot as it is related to the growth of your character. External motivation, on the other hand, exists in the actions of your character to overcome the world around them. Regardless of what type of motivation you’re featuring, you don’t want to rein it in too much. Find a balance between too much and too little motivation, to give your character room to grow in the face of the plot. Also set boundaries, which is to say know which aspects of the situation will actually be motivated. If you have your character trying to cook a soufflé while being chased by a deranged gunman, you’ve gone too far.

If you want to give a main character a compelling side motivation or ancillary motivation, refer back to the answer to the question “you want what?” and spark their need with both internal and external motivations. Referring back to the main hero in the example, instead of putting all of the motivation on making a soufflé, keep expectations related to everything but the soufflé in play. At many moments, the protagonist is going to be interested in more than the soufflé, which preserves the sense of urgency in preparation. Yet it also allows the audience to witness his or her evolution throughout the story.

Few things can change a story quite as much as a troubled character, but remember to give your protagonists room for growth. Characters that have a dark past that they’re trying to put behind them create compelling emotion, but there are no easy fixes, and your work is far from over. A lasting and meaningful change in a character never comes easily, but that’s an important part of its story. In the end, readers want to read about characters who grow and change, but who remain true to themselves — that takes hard work, so good luck!

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