6 Tips for Creating Character Motivation
Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 12 “Motivation”
“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”
I've found that character motivation seems to categorize people into two groups—those for who it comes naturally and those who need to put conscious effort into it. Some people get it without even thinking about what they're doing, while others need to make a plan. Neither group is necessarily better at writing than the other, it's just an interesting dividing point among us that allows for more diversified storytelling. That being said, I think all topics can benefit from thoughtful consideration, whether you plan to use it down the road or not. So whether you've thought about it in the past or not, I'm going to give some ideas for how you might sharpen or establish your character motivation.
Types of Character Motivation
Tip 1: A character can have motivation in terms of goals.
The first type of motivation that can drive a character is a goal, a specific objective that they want to achieve. These sorts of objectives are often the biggest determiner of what type of story you are going to tell, and are most often key to creating various antagonists and protagonists. With goals serving as motivation, you story will have a narrow focus. The hero will focus his/her energy on revenge, saving the world, finding an artifact, rescuing a loved one, etc... As such, this sort of character motivation is the least likely to change over the course of the story. They may narrow (like learning a specific way to save the world) or flip (like learning to seek justice instead of vengeance) but the core focus of the story is so important that there isn't much room for total change.
Tip 2: A character can have motivation in terms of general desires.
The second type of motivation is much more general, and is generally used for supporting characters and antagonists. This type of character does not have a specific goal, but wants generally good things to happen. They want to make friend, fall in love, make money, become more powerful, etc... Generally, this sort of character motivation only lasts into the beginning of the second Act, as it is often not a powerful enough motivator to propel the entire story. As painful or new events pop up, the character will in turn create goals for how to either fix the problem, avoid it, or take advantage of it. And because they are often going to be making up these goals as the story progresses, the goals may not start out concrete or very good. But they'll sharpen up as the character develops and learns more about what it is they truly want.
Tip 3: A character can have motivation in terms of things they wish to avoid.
If you are creating a story where an everyday person transforms into some sort of hero, you will likely start with the final motivation type of avoidance. Characters, like people, will most believably be motivated to avoid pain, death, and destruction. They will go on a quest and become stronger to avoid being helpless when their town is inevitably destroyed by an oncoming evil force. They will work hard at a relationship to avoid losing the other person. They will avoid death by becoming a bad-ass zombie killer. However, like with general desires as a motivation, this will generally sharpen and grow to become a goal as the character grows.
Character Motivation and the Plot
Tip 4: Character motivations generally grow with the character and the plot outline.
You may have noticed a pattern between plot development and how a character's motivations change (depending on the type of story you want to tell; a revenge story, for example, can remain focused on revenge as a motivation for the entire plot and still be a good story). There is actually a formula that is successfully used in storytelling that connects these two story elements. By studying it, you can learn to purposefully ignore it, modify it to make your own formula, or copy it to utilize its traditional strength. So let's look at a sample plot outline for what seems to be the most common type of story, that of an everyday person rising up and defeating some sort of antagonist. (For definitions and reminders of all the plot points, click here.)
Beginning (The protagonist has only general desire motivations and avoidance motivations)
Inciting Incident (The protagonist is shaken by an unusual event that challenges their original and comfortable motivations)
First Turning Point (The protagonist reacts by creating a goal to either get back something lost, prevent something from getting worse, or achieve something new.)
Rising Action (The protagonist acts on their new and somewhat misguided goal, resulting in a lot of failure but some success, causing them to refine their goal a bit.)
First Pinch Point (The protagonist sees a chance to achieve their goal.)
Midpoint (The protagonist fails to achieve their goal.)
Disaster (The protagonist's faith in the goal is shattered.)
Second Pinch Point (The protagonist is faced with the prospect of never achieving their goal, which will result in unacceptable consequences.)
Second Turning Point (The protagonist reacts by creating a new goal that takes their new-found limitations, experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and insight into consideration.)
ACT IIIStand-up (The protagonist regains a more pure form of faith in their new goal.)
Climax (The protagonist's goals and motivations are put to the test.)
Epilogue (The protagonist deals with the consequences or rewards for success or failure to achieve their goals.)
Tip 5: All character types need motivations.
No matter what type of character you create, they will need some sort of motivation. A protagonist may want to achieve something great with their life. A supporting character may want to mentor and help the protagonist. The antagonist will want to defeat the protagonist. Even the narrator will have a motivation for wanting to tell the story. Every character has a motivation of some sort because all believable people want something, even if that is simply to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Even if you create some sort of hyper self-aware monk, they will be motivated by their desire not to have motivation. So find what drives each and every character in your story, and make sure that all of their actions line up with what drives them.
Tip 6: Don't let character motivation intimidate you.
While it is always fun to have characters with complex motivations, note that it isn't necessary that they all be that way. Sometimes a person just want to make a friend, or to fall in love, or to get a promotion. Sure there are complex reasons for why a character would want these things, but we as the audience understand the complexity of universal human desires because we also have them. The important thing is simply to be able to list out every character in your book and state what emotional, intellectual, or situational force is pushing them in the story. Once you figure that basic and core part of your character, the rest of your character development will begin to fall in line.
Weekly Recommended Reading: "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver (for a look at a story with tremendously diverse and obvious character motivations, all working together to tell a unified story).
Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.12
Write down a list of all your characters and establish their motivation in one sentence.
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True distinguishments in this piece. Tricky part is figuring out how to combine multiple motivations into one character for several different actions, or even to craft a story that utilizes each of them.
Derpy(Main character and is actually a Changeling. A changeling is a member of a shape shifting insectoid race that has a telepathic collective mind) - Her motives are to not get found out that she is a changeling. Raise, protect, and provide for her daughter. To try and live a normal a life as possible.
Chrysalis(Changeling Queen and represents just about every real life dictator that's ever existed) - As Queen she can directly mind control the changelings. However she cannot control Derpy who she considers a 'rouge changeling'. She cannot even read Derpy's mind like she normally can with Changelings. Chrysalis sees Derpy as threat that needs to be stopped because Chrysalis is afraid that the rouge will tell Celestia or some other 'good pony' what her plans are. Of course there is the usual dictator attitude of 'my subjects belong to me and me alone and I do with them whatever I like. They live and die by my whim.'
Celestia/Luna(Sisters and Rulers of their kingdom) - Like Chrysalis they know a Changeling is living among the Ponies. However the Sisters believe the Changeling is some part of Chrysalis' plan. Their motive is the find this mysterious Changeling in order prevent whatever Chrysalis is up to.