Have you ever struggled to write a character? Maybe you can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing, what they want to be doing, or why they’re doing what the plot you’ve planned requires? You might need to take a look at your character’s motivation.
This guide to character motivation covers:
- What is character motivation?
- External character motivation
- Internal character motivation
- Why does character motivation matter?
- How to write believable character motivation
- Mistakes to avoid in writing character motivation
What is character motivation?
It’s an important element in writing a strong and compelling character. Their motivation is the driving force behind their actions. A character’s motivation is something they need. It could be linked to their own survival, someone else’s, or something that they hinge their identity or existence upon.
But, sometimes motivation is less life-altering–especially for side or minor characters–but a good rule of thumb is that if a character is important enough to name, they’re important enough to want something. Your protagonist’s motivation is the thing they strive for above all else.
There are two main types of character motivation–external and internal.
External character motivation
Your external motivations are drives linked to survival. It could be their own survival, a loved one’s, or even the survival of a greater cause.
Examples of external motivation sources:
- Physiological needs, like food and shelter
- Safety, as in protecting yourself, your property, your loved ones
- Protecting your society or environment
Internal character motivation
Your internal motivations are related to the character’s inner workings.
Examples of internal motivation sources:
- Finding love or making friends
- Learning something or overcoming an emotional or intellectual obstacle
- Getting revenge or atonement
Your character’s motivation might be internal, external, or a mix of both. Great main characters have more than one motivation.
What do people need?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a classic way to consider the range of human wants and requirements. From basic physiological survival requirements to self-actualization, your character’s motivation lies somewhere in this hierarchy.
For example, if we start with the base human needs, physiological requirements include breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion.
Safety includes feeling and being secure in, and of, body, employment, resources, morality, health, and property, for you, your family, and anyone else you claim responsibility for.
Love and belonging can include friendship, pets, family, and sex outside of the evolutionary need to reproduce.
Esteem means self-esteem, but also confidence, achievement, respect of and by others.
So, self-actualization covers a person’s journey through and toward morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance.
A simplified version of the hierarchy might be more helpful for writers. This version has three main categories:
- Security and safety
Maslow’s model theorizes that physiological needs must be met before moving up the hierarchy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it works in directly the order listed, but imagine a person is drowning (in threat of losing the physiological need of breathing) and instead of thinking of how to get out of the water, they’re thinking about how to publish their memoirs for creative achievement and fulfillment. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, right?
People (and characters) have a natural order in which they want things. Some categories of need are just more pressing than others, so they should be seen to first.
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Why should you care to understand character motivation?
Why do we care to put in the effort writing a motivation for our character? Isn’t it enough that they’re an active character?
The motivation for those actions is what your readers will connect with the most.
Motivation makes a character relatable–to the writer and the reader.
Understanding why a character is doing something makes them much easier to write, and makes them more human to read.
Imagine reading a scene where a character throws a fit and tears up a hotel room without knowing why they’re doing it. We can imagine a reason for it, sure, but knowing that they’re in from out of town for a funeral and their family just kicked them out of it would make that scene more impactful and understandable.
Otherwise it just looks like they’re having a tantrum.
With a specific character motivation, the reader can understand and relate to the character.
Having an established motivation helps the writer too. If you know what a character wants, you’ll know how to write their actions.
A common mistake amateur writers will make is focusing on the plot. In order to get the story from Point A to Point B, the character has to do XYZ. While that might be true for the story, having a character mime out whatever is necessary for the plot can make for a convoluted or nonexistent character arc.
With a specific character motivation, the writer can know what the character would realistically do in different situations.
Every character needs a motivation.
Authors usually write their protagonist’s motivation without even trying–but what about your antagonist? What about the supporting cast? Like I said, if a character is important enough to have a name, they’re important enough to have a motivation.
If a character doesn’t have a motivation, they have no reason to act. In order to create a compelling cast of round, complete characters, a writer needs to understand how to write motivation.
Now that we understand character motivation and why it’s important,
How do you write believable character motivation?
There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about your character’s motivations. Here are some tips:
Make them complex
Some characters will have very simple motivations–like survive being hunted by a bear. But most characters will have complicated, deeper motivations that contradict things in their environment, things they believe within themselves, and even their other motivations.
Surface-level motivations have their place, and often those can coexist with deeper motivations, but your main character should be complicated, and so should the things they want.
Give your character more than one motivation
Like I mentioned earlier, you should have a mix of external and internal motivators for your main character. It also might seem like they really want one thing, but that want stems from a deeper desire. Maybe your character is really fighting for a promotion at work, but their internal motivation is a sense of accomplishment, for example.
Have your character change
Through pursuing what they want–or think that they want–your character should trigger their own arc.
How do they change while they’re trying to get what they want? Was it really what they wanted all along, or do they learn that they truly desire something else?
Have your character’s motivation, and their achieving or lack of achieving it, coincide with their character arc.
Have your character’s motivation change.
With your character’s change, their motivations will likely change as well.
Just like real people, a character should change their mind, change their outlook, and change what motivates them to act.
Consider how circumstances and plot beats could change their opinion on a matter, or some other significant shift that might swap their original motivation or make them realize what it has been all along.
Keep a character sheet.
Simply speaking, it’s easier to craft compelling and complex characters if you can brainstorm traits, flaws, interests, goals, weaknesses, strengths and other aspects of their personality and keep it organized in one place. Having all of their data in line will help you realize what motivates them as a person.
Giving your characters complex, multiple motivations that change and change them, and keeping a character sheet can help you to create strong character motivations that will lead to strong character arcs.
Mistakes to avoid in writing character motivation.
Here are some of the biggest mistakes you might run into when you’re writing in things that motivate your characters.
Forgetting about the villains.
Like I mentioned earlier, your protagonist isn’t the only character who needs to be motivated. The antagonists and villains need love too. Why are they doing what they do? Sure, sometimes characters can be “just evil,” but what are their goals? What is their ultimate idea for what they want to achieve? What drives them? It doesn’t have to be a tragic backstory, and it doesn’t have to make them an empathetic character, but they still need to be motivated by something.
Forgetting about the supporting cast.
To reiterate: if a character is important enough to have a name, they’re important enough to have a goal. As an example of side characters who don’t have motivation, think about the best friend in most romantic comedies–they’re only there to support the main character and their goals. They typically don’t have drive of their own, and their only purpose is to be a soundboard for the protagonist’s problems or to be a plot device. While this works in a formulaic romcom, it’s not ideal for novel characters. As a general rule, everyone needs to want something.
Telling instead of showing.
There is so much to writing that goes behind the scenes. Worldbuilding, character sheets, research, backstory, history–and most of that work doesn’t show in the text. And that’s good! Your backstory should be like a shadow of your story, providing depth and tangibility. You don’t spell out and share every single aspect of what you’ve built of your world, you let it create a richer picture for the story to take place in.
Your character development works the same way. When you’ve decided what drives your character, just let it drive them. You know it’s the motivational force, but you don’t tell your reader that. A good reader will figure out your character’s motivation on their own if they’ve been written well. In most cases, blatantly conveying information to the audience cheapens the experience.
Sticking too hard to one motivation.
Like we talked about earlier, a character’s motivation should be open to change. It’s also nice to have multiple in play at once to provide a complex and intriguing character arc. Think about how the character themself is changing throughout the story, then apply that change to the things they want and the way they act.
So make sure you give every character an adequate motivator, including the antagonists and supporting casts, show those motivations in the way the character behaves and makes choices, and don’t be afraid to have multiple, complex, or evolving motivations.
These tips should help you write a more grounded, round, and relatable character! What was your favorite book character’s main motivation, and did it change over the course of the story?
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