Pinpointing Your Characters’ Motivation

This week on Firsts in Fiction, Steve and I delve deep into our fanboyisms as we explore the intricacies of character motivation. You can download the episode here, or stream it live below. Enjoy.

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s.dilemma.eyesIf you listened last week, you got some good tips on how to create characters, but your journey isn’t complete. In order to make sure your novel (or story) works well, you need to make sure you’ve pinpointed your characters’ motivation. While most of us can easily say what motivates our protagonists, many of can’t say the same for our secondary characters. The result is a book with only one true character. Without motivation, we’re left with cardboard cut outs. They may be pretty to look at, but they lack depth (if you’ll pardon my pun).

Motivation is the key to determining conflict. By definition, conflict is what stands between our character and their motivation. For example, if your character is motivated by the quest for love, and their beloved wife is kidnapped, it puts them in motion to retrieve their true love. A savvy author will have his or her finger on the pulse of character motivation and be able to exploit it to create appropriate conflict.

When you’re penning a scene, make sure each of your characters has a specific motivation and is working toward it. The best scenes arise when multiple characters have differing motivation. For example, in a stereotypical good vs. evil set up, our bad guy is motivated by an unnatural thirst for world-power, while our hero is motivated by the peace he (or she) enjoyed as a child growing up in the provinces. However, more interesting are the scenes when multiple characters are motivated by the same thing. The most common example of this is a love triangle. Two guys want the same girl, but they can’t share her. If we think about the third character in the love triangle, they’re in a point of conflict, motivated by two opposites. They want separate things equally, and must make a choice.

This is a great place for your characters to be. They  may  not like it, but readers sure do. And really, isn’t that what we do as writers? We make our characters miserable for the sake of our readers. Understanding their motivation can help put them in the ringer, and create some wonderfully powerful prose.

Several people have composed lists of common motivation. While the following list is built on the work of Napoleon Hill, I’ve taken a few liberties to add a few of my own.

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  • 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.)

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Don’t limit yourself to only one of these per character. Most characters are motivated by any combination of these. In truth, they’re motivated by each of them, though only one or two assert themselves over the others. For example, while your protagonist may wish to restore peace to the kingdom, he may also fantasize about how his noble sacrifice will be sung about for centuries to come, and how his beloved will look at him with new eyes. Here, he’s motivated by peace, love, and recognition. While he may still be motivated by material gain, it may not be as important to him as peace. And while he’d like to have both, he must choose. This choice reveals who he is as a character.

If you’d really like to up the ante, make your character choose. One of my favorite examples of this is in the Spider-Man film from 2002. In it, Green Goblin holds Mary Jane (Spider-Man’s one true love) in one hand, and a cable car full of school-aged children in another. “That’s the problem with being a hero,” he tells Spider-Man. “Sooner or later, you have to choose.” He then drops both.

What incredible motivation. His choice will define who he is, and will live with him until he breathes his last. Talk about developing character.

Lastly, your character’s motivation tells us when the story is done. If they hope for peace, once it’s accomplished (or irreparably lost), we know the story is done, just like this post.

Until next week, good writing.

11 Comments on Pinpointing Your Characters’ Motivation

  1. Xristian Liabeuf | September 3, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Reply

    i found the pinpointing characters very helpfull but when cimes to the hero being the tuff guy… i would rather see a weak hero, then see him bloodied up, then see him super buff , and finally see the bad guy in pieces

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  2. I agree that making your protagonist more confident is a good idea but often times when they’re looked at like that, they become unrelatable. People can relate to someone who is more insecure and not as confident better than someone who has a lot of confidence and thinks they’re perfect because most people aren’t actually like that. Usually they do have at least one insecurity about themselves. Wouldn’t it be better to make a character who isn’t as perfect so you can relate more to the readers?

  3. Adriana Coonce | September 4, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply

    I like the fact that you posted this. It is a very interesting subject. There are people that would like to see the good guy be perfect all the time. I don’t like seeing that way it just makes me feel that the whole thing is fake. When I am reading a book I like to feel like I am in the book and when people are perfect it kinda ruins the book for me.

  4. erik hartshorn | September 6, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply

    In many books I have read making the chacter choose is excellent.It builds up the climax and hooks the reader in to the book even more.

  5. After listening to this it really gave me some ideas flowing for the main motivation.why a character may do the things he\she does is very important,forming characters it difficult for me but the character sketch sheet like you have you said before also is a big help.

  6. In stories I often ask myself “why?” And it’s hard for me to answer by I can usually come up with a good back story I just like it when things fall into place at the end

  7. Jonathan Davila (Spartacus) | October 2, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply

    I do believe Character should have strong motivation, Although I do want my protagonist to share the same drive as my antagonist with a hidden twist at the end

  8. Jacob Roberts (Tron) | October 15, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Reply

    I agree that the character should have a strong push of motivation as well, because without it what is driving the character? or in other words, his meaning.

  9. Having main characters behave and feel like real people creates believability, but as you said, every character has to be believable, main or not. I find many books that focus entirely on the main man or women, but hardly anyone else; like they live in their own world.

  10. I have never really worried about secondary characters before I have always just focused on making my main character as good as possible and usually I do but like you said my secondary characters lack depth and that can be a problem to my story so hopefully I can work on this in the future.

  11. It really does bug me when the characters are too perfect because it’s so unrealistic and I don’t feel in that bubble anymore where I feel I can relate to the character.

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