Character Motivation: The Engine that Drives a Story

Character motivation is the engine that drives a story. At the most basic level, an audience wants to understand the “why” behind why a character acts the way that they do. It is the basic way that a reader will engage with the story, but despite how important character motivation is, an embarrassing number of writers don’t give it the attention that it deserves. This results in all sorts of problems, the most important being boring, bland characters that spend most of their time reacting to the plot. Fortunately, it’s very simple to make sure that your characters don’t fall into this trap.

We'll not ask him what his motivation is.

Some characters have more obvious motivations than others.

All you really need to do is make sure that all of your characters have a motivation, goal, or purpose that is both concrete and can be summarized in a single sentence. For example:

Jack wants to cure his father’s mysterious, magical illness.

Compare this to a more vague and complicated motivation:

Susan wants to help people.

We can understand how Jack would react to a given situation. If he’s offered a job, he’ll only accept if it seems to further his search for a cure in some way. If he meets a doctor, he’ll probably ask if they’ve encountered an illness like his father’s. Susan is a little harder to pin down. There are a lot of different ways to “help people” and just about any situation could be argued to be helping someone. The result is that while Jack acts consistently, Susan is all over the place. She needs something more specific, like:

Susan wants to help people by becoming a doctor at the Royal Academy.

Put your Motivations on a Postcard

Something that can help is to make a notecard for all of your characters. Write their name, a distinguishing characteristic, and their motivation. An added benefit to this approach is that it will help you organize your thoughts in regards to how your characters relate to one another. For example, now that we know Jack and Susan’s motivation, we can forsee how these characters will interact and under what circumstances.

Ultimately, the key to character motivation is simplicity. People are complex, but characters should be straightforward. A motivation can be hidden from the audience, deliberately ambiguous, or ever-changing throughout the course of your story, but it should always be something you can point to and state with clearly from moment to moment.

Of course, once you have clear character motivations, how can you use them to create drama? We’ll discuss that next time in the second part of our look at character motivations. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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