Defining the Drive: Character Motivation

Defining the Drive: Character Motivation



Ask the Author: When you’re writing historical fiction or any fiction that requires heavy research of a subject, how do you keep the researched information from overwhelming the story itself? – Joseph Bentz

Aaron: This is a tricky one. I’ve been guilty of the dreaded “info dump” because I wanted everyone to know how much research I’d done. In fact, in The Bargain, I had plenty of research that never made it into the story, sadly. My process is to add it in the first draft, where I need it as an author. Then, in the second draft, I cut whatever research is not paramount to the story. If the reader doesn’t need to know it, I cut it, as sad as it makes me.

Al: Writers of historical fiction face this problem with every story they create. So much time goes into research and so many interesting facts are learned that the urge to use it all in the book is almost overwhelming. It should also be avoided at all costs. Things to keep in mind: 1) A novel can educate but it must focus on entertaining; 2) Practice RUE–Resist the Urge to Explain [if you’re writing about 18th century America you might show a woman button her shoes but don’t stop to explain that shoestrings wouldn’t come along for many decades]; ; 3) story is king; 4) Trust your readers; 5) Tell them only what they need to know to understand the setting, the character, and the action.

If you change history add an author’s afterword (ala Jack Cavanaugh) explaining where you took liberties.

MJ: For me, the simplest way to keep in check is to remember I’m writing a novel, not a history lesson. As long as my details are in the background and add to the story, I needn’t explain what’s there. Now and then, if there’s an object that modern readers are unfamiliar with, you may show your character utilizing it, or having another character explain. A simple sentence or two clarifies the object of history, and doesn’t take the reader out of the story.


  • Every character must want or need something, no matter how small (a glass of water, a paycheck, respect, etc.)
  • This is true for minor characters as well as for primary characters, though for “walk ons,” it’s not as important.
  • Without motivation, there is no fiction. Fiction equals character / obstacle /  desire.
  • In most fiction there should be a clear motive for the protagonist AND the antagonist. (Indiana Jones)
    • Sometimes these motivations (esp. for the antagonist) are kept from the reader for a time. For example, in a mystery, one of the questions the hero must answer is why the murder(s) took place. This is true for any “discovery” fiction–fiction with a puzzle to solve (some thrillers, all mysteries, some romance, etc).
    • You control the flow of information to suit your story. All that is required is that you be fair with the reader. A writer might, for impact, reveal the protag’s motivation slowly.
  • Some books have multiple protags. (although I believe there should be a primary protag.) My (Al’s) thriller Wounds has to very different protags forced to work together. They each have personal motivations that grow into team motivations and back to personal motivation.
    • Another example is the Harbingers series. Five people, all very different. They share a motivation but each has a different pov and a personal motivation.
    • An examples from classes Al has taught:
      • Survivor. A flight attendant is the only survivor of a plane crash. Then, after months in the hospital, she sees one of the passengers and he is unscathed.
        • What are her options? Depends on her motivation.
        • What motivation could she have to make an interesting story?


  • Motivation should be believable. Remember:
    • Every character is the hero of his/her story
    • Avoid “evil for evil’s sake.”
    • Motivation should come from the personality of the character rather than being thrust upon them by the author for the sake of the story.
  • Characters with conflicting motivation make for great fiction. Perhaps two characters want the same thing, but only one can have it (think romance novels).
  • Here’s a list of common motivations
    • Self-preservation (avoidance of pain, punishment, and protection or reputation etc.)
    • Love (romantic, friendship, etc.)
    • Fear (of monsters or loneliness or loss etc.)
    • Spirituality (religious motivation, primarily life-after-death rewards)
    • Pleasing others (love interests, parents, deities)
    • Freedom (political or personal, for a people or for an individual)
    • Peace (freedom from conflict, transcendence, etc.)
    • Anger and hate (revenge and vengeance, righteous justice)
    • Recognition (acclaim, praise, adoration, worship, elevating oneself above others)
    • Material gain (greed and lust, for power, for money, etc.)
  • Characters are often motivated by several things. Pick two. Pick three. Have fun with it.
  • The act of striving for one goal may create one or more new challenges requiring new motivation. Someone with a revenge motive will soon have a self-preservation motive which can conflict with love motive.
  • Character motivation often shifts throughout the novel. This is the idea of progression.
  • Give as much thought to motivation as you do to character and scene. Three questions:
    • What if? (If you have this, you have a workable idea.)
    • Why bother? (Why should the protag bother with it at all? If you have this, then you have a believable motivation.)
    • What’s next? (If you have this, then you have a workable plot line.)

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