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.
If 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.
- 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.)
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.