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What's Your Character's Motivation?

Updated on May 25, 2015
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Your characters' motivations are what give your story purpose. Without this motivation, there's no reason for your characters to grow. They are content with their lives. They have no reason to grow.

Characters that do not grow do not make an interesting story.

Worse yet, a character with motivation, but acts against these motivations, is just confusing. It's like throwing away a bag of chips if you hadn't eaten for two days.

You don't. Because that doesn't make sense.

We know these things, yet we continue to write characters with weak motivations. We continue to place the plot before the needs of the characters. But, without the characters, there would be no plot.

This is why motivation is important. No matter how complex the plot may get, the focus is on the character's desires. This makes your story easier to follow, because motivations give your story purpose.

Types of Motivation

There are three types of motivation:

  • Goal-Oriented
  • Subconscious
  • Reactionary

Your character may have more than one of these motivations at a time. These motivations can also change as the story progresses. Just make sure that each character has at least one motive that stays the same. If the interests of the character changes too much, the story becomes too complicated.

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1. Goal-Oriented Motivaion

A goal-oriented motivation is an objective your character would like to achieve. Since characters with a goal in mind act deliberately, you will be using this type of motivation often. The actions your characters take drive the whole plot forward.

To develop this type of motivation, your character needs an unfulfilled desire. This need to realize this desire must be so strong that they are willing to face conflict to get it.

Now, the goal itself doesn't have to be complex. For example, consider a scenario where your main character was kidnapped. His initial goal would be, of course, to free himself. But, after that, he can do a variety of things.

  • He can try to escape the building as quickly as possible.
  • He can search the area to find other survivors.
  • He can try to confront his captors.

The first goal, escaping, doesn't need to be explained. The other two would require more explanation.

You have to justify why he's exploring dangerous territory. Even if the only reason why is because he has a reckless personality. Without this explanation, the goal doesn't make sense to the reader. Then, they lose interest in your story.

A strong goal for your characters drives the plot forward. Without them, there's no need for the story to exist.

2. Subconscious Motivation

This motivation is trickier than a goal-oriented motivation. A subconscious motivation uses the character's backstory to influence their decisions in the present. If done correctly, this motivation can add a layer of complexity to your characters.

To use this motivation effectively, you must first understand the character's past. Your character's backstory can have a strong influence on the story. Feelings from the past can affect the decisions your character makes in the present.

For example, let's say you have a character that craves unconditional love. They will, more than likely, do these two things:

  • They will react against actions that dismiss them.
  • They will cling to actions that welcome them.

You can also show how they react to other people being loved. This moves beyond what the character can control and places them in situations they can only react to.

  • Are they jealous of those who have many friends?
  • Do they bash those that don't, because they fear being alone themselves?
  • Or does this motivate them to try to find love even more?

These types of questions highlight not only the character's motivations, but also their personality.

Then, you have to find a method to explain this motivation. You can either weave the information into the narrative in small chunks, or show it all in a single flashback. Either way, the insight into the character's past makes them that much more compelling.

Consider this situation: the previously-mentioned character had a rough childhood. They were ignored by her parents and didn't make many friends. So, to make up for their terrible childhood, they need affection from everyone they meet. Before knowing this, the character sounded needy. After finding this out, the character is worthy of empathy from your readers.

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3. Reactionary Motivation

Reactionary motivation is a temporary response to outside events. This response is random to your character, so it isn't goal-oriented. How the character reacts isn't related to their backstory either, so it isn't subconscious. It's simply how your character reacts to situations.

How your character responds to situations depends on their personality. For example, let's say a character hears a strange noise in the middle of the night. This noise is loud enough to make them worry.

  • How would you investigate?
  • Which rooms would you look into first?
  • Would you carry anything with you, in case of an intruder?
  • Would you investigate at all?

How they react to situations will dictate how how the story advances. A timid character will react completely differently to adversity than a headstrong character. By knowing this, you'll be able to make your character's reactions more realistic.

Finding Your Character's Motivation

For most motivations, you need to find out why your characters want to make progress. But, for reactionary and subconscious motivations, it gets complicated. These motivations are steeped into the character's personality and past. Ignoring that while creating these motivations generates dull characters.

If you need some help, try one of these methods:

Interview Your Character

In this method, you'll need to ask your characters a set of questions about themselves. These questions should be the same for all characters, to maintain consistency.

These questions don't have to be plot related. They can be quirky questions that your reader will never know, such as the Pizza Test. So long as it is fun for you and reveals more about the character, the questions themselves can be about anything.

The purpose of these questions is to help you predict your character's actions. These questions allow you to explore how your characters will react to things based on their own experiences. Because of this, certain characters respond to things in a unique way.

Interview questions are a fun way to get to know your characters. By knowing your characters, you will be able to create realistic motivations for them.

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Write Your Character's Biography

Another method you could try is writing your character's biography. Through this method you'll create a compelling backstory that explains why your characters do the things they do.

To write your character's bio, think about how their backstory affected their decisions. Consider these types of questions:

  • What facts about your character would explain why they have a certain goal?
  • What facts about your character would explain why they are on their journey?
  • What facts about your character would explain how they feel about their journey?

Once you've gathered this type of information, you can use it to further develop your characters.

How do you give your character's motivations? Leave a comment below!

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    • GalaxyRat profile image

      GalaxyRat 4 months ago from The Crazy Rat Lady's House

      Great! Really helped! :)

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Nicole, great tips on how to get your character motivation for your storyline. Voted up!

    • Aladdins Cave profile image

      Aladdins Cave 2 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Great stuff

      was that good I Tweeted it for you

      Hopefully you get more readers today

      Cheers from DOWNUNDER

    • Engelta profile image

      Engelis 2 years ago from Albania

      This one put me in much thought. Interesting perceptions of characters.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      I recently began the "snowflake method" of novel writing, and I've read this hub at a handy time because I am on Step 3, which includes describing the motivation of each major character. I'll probably give some of your suggestions a try.

      Pretending I'm a method actor helps me understand a character's motivation.