If you’ve spent any time in a writing class, you’ve probably had discussions on character motivation or at least heard it mentioned. But regardless of your experience, you may have had the thought, “Why does character motivation matter at all?”
It may seem like such a small, inconsequential thing to have your characters want something. You might think that something as simple as desire and motivation will just come naturally to your characters.
While that could be true in some cases, character motivation is too important to leave to the whims of chance and purely organic writing.
Here at Habit Writing, we believe that writing in a character’s motivation is one of the easiest ways to drive your story forward and create characters that your reader can connect with and will want to follow.
In this article we’ll give a brief overview of what character motivation is, why it matters, and how you can better include a character’s motivation in your own story.
What is Character Motivation?
Understanding character motivation is key to understanding a character. Take any main character you’ve ever read and enjoyed. Can you immediately think of what that character wanted? The answer is probably yes. For me, the first character that came to mind was Kvothe from The Name of the Wind (because I’m only slightly obsessed).
Kvothe’s main motivation is to learn more about and ultimately destroy a group of beings that caused a traumatic moment in his childhood–that’s about as spoiler-free as I could make it. This motivation is clear and well established throughout the book. The answer came almost immediately as I thought about it, and the same should be true of almost every main character you’ve ever read.
Character motivation is the driving force behind a character’s actions. This motivation can come from a character’s backstory, a burning desire they’ve developed, or simply an experience they want to have.
Whether it’s a want or a need, character motivation is some sort of intrinsic detail that propels the character to act and determines how they react to something.
Even if the motivation may appear external, such as a malevolent ruler or a natural phenomenon, the character may act or react out of fear of death, harm, or some other emotion. Ultimately, the motivation will come from something internal (unless Dracula is controlling their mind and body).
Important to note as well is that characters aren’t limited to a single motivator.
The believable characters you’ve read likely have multiple motivations. The more complex the character, the more motivations they’ll have (though that’s up for debate). But with any character, it should be easy to point to one crucial desire or psychological need they have that does the lion’s share of motivating.
Why Does Character Motivation Matter?
Okay, so characters should want something, but why’s that so important?
Character motivation matters because it has its hand in plot development, character development, and the formation of a good story.
Every conscious action we take as human beings is informed by either a want, a need, or the illusion that we want/need something. The same goes for characters in a story. Without any sort of motivation, nothing would ever happen. Character motivation is the catalyst that sets the story in motion.
The plot follows a character as they seek to fulfill their motivation. Because they want something, they have to go and get it or change something about their lifestyle to ensure that they achieve their goals. It’s the act of leaving the equilibrium (the state where they have their needs and wants met) that creates the story.
Having these motivating factors sets the stakes for the story. Immediately the reader will want to know how they plan to achieve that goal and what might get in their way.
We are drawn to people who try things because we want to know if they succeed or fail. The same is true of our reading habits. By having this motivation, the reader will want to watch the character go through the events of the book (the plot) and see how it changes them.
Throughout the story, there should also be conflict; something should get in the way of your character satisfying their motivation. The character’s motivation and personality will determine how they deal with that conflict, and this friction is what makes dynamic stories.
Character motivation is vital to developing your complex character. A classic story type is where a character wants something, but they later realize that their wants get in the way of what they need. Without a clear character motivation, this type of development would be nearly impossible.
Thinking of characters in terms of wants and needs can be a good way to develop them and set up the character arc. Before I write my stories, I usually come up with what my character wants while also figuring out what they actually need. The arc comes as they slowly realize that the thing they wanted was often the very thing that held them back.
I usually write my villainous characters to steamroll over their own needs and the needs of others to get what they want. This type of character arc usually leaves them destitute and in a rough spot, but it’s entirely driven by their motivations.
Making these kinds of arcs can engage the reader if the reader finds out what the character needs, but then they watch as the character avoids those situations, favoring instead what they want.
Why does character motivation matter? It all boils down to the fact that character motivation builds the story and sets its trajectory. The plot sequences are determined by characters’ desires, and the character development relies on how they change according to what they need and want.
Character motivation is the material that forms the building blocks. It’s the atomic makeup of all stories.
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How to Include Character Motivation
Okay, it’s important or whatever, but how do I include it? What does that mean practically for my writing?
One of the easiest and best places to introduce your character’s motivation is in the first chapter. You don’t have to (and maybe shouldn’t) outright have the character say, “My desire is to [insert desire here], and my goal is to [whatever the goal may be].”
A good way to define the motivation is by addressing a problem and defining the character’s reaction to the problem. Many of our desires are born from trial. Maybe we want to get stronger because we had trouble lifting our table when we moved out of state.
Whatever the desire, it usually comes from the absence of something or a different type of conflict. By showing what the character lacks and providing their associated frustration, you show the beginnings of your character’s motivation.
Maybe we see a family with a store that isn’t doing so well, or they can’t make the rent to the gang of elves who control the market. (Please write this story.) If the family shows any love for the shop, the reader can assume that the family’s motivation is to keep the store afloat.
Having that initial motivation established, you can introduce deeper motivations, such as a father’s desire for a more consequential job, or a mother who has always dreamed of living somewhere else, or a child who wants to feel loved in a way his family can’t provide.
You should suggest the base motivation as soon as possible and then you can flesh out more personal motivations throughout the story while pushing them toward each character’s actual needs.
Your protagonist isn’t the only character who can and should have clear motivations. Oftentimes, it will be in your best interest to have the antagonist’s motivations stand directly counter to what your protagonist wants.
The opposing interests will lead the characters into conflict. Superman stories portray this type of story in its most basic form. Hero wants to protect the city, and villain wants to destroy the city.
By having more complex motivations, you can create more complex, engaging stories, but Superman’s (and most heroes in general) popularity reveals the power of motivations driving audience interest.
Your antagonist’s motivation can be introduced in the beginning of the story, such as in The Dark Knight, but oftentimes you will have your antagonist appear later on in the story. You can hint at your antagonist’s desires and goals as subtext or symbols before the reader even meets them.
There are many ways to introduce motivation, but here’s a way to do it that I find very interesting.
Audiences love powerful antagonists because they raise the stakes, and you can use some of the expectations a reader may have of a powerful villain to first disseminate that motivation and later correct it or expound upon it.
This can be done in a number of ways, but often a character’s first interaction with an antagonist will not be with the antagonist himself, but with someone who represents or works for that antagonist, such as henchman, security, lawyers, or apprentices.
These characters will enact a semblance of the antagonist’s goals, but the protagonist and antagonist will eventually meet. During this confrontation, the antagonist will reveal his, her, or their true motivations.
Now, this is only one example of a way to explain the villain’s goals. You should be creative with it, but the important thing is to clearly depict the villain’s motivations.
Character motivation is the key to telling a good story. These desires and goals inform the reader about why a character acts and reacts as they do.
Because they offer that insight into the character, the reader has a deeper connection to the plot and story.
When authors make the motivations of their characters clear, the reader can more easily engage with the character’s development. They know what to expect of a character, and sometimes they even know more about what characters need than the characters themselves.
Because of this knowledge, the reader becomes intrigued with how the character will come to that knowledge and if they will take the steps to achieve that or not.
Including your protagonist’s goals and desires as close to the beginning of the story as possible will allow your readers to know immediately what to expect of the story. You’ll play with that expectation and subvert it in many ways, but establishing the motivation will garner the reader’s interest.
You should also include your antagonist’s goals and other side characters. Doing so will open up your plot and start the path towards realistic and complex characters.
Following this guide to character motivation should help you with ever aspect of writing your novel, but for more helpful tools and resources, check out our other articles in our blog!
gavinwrideGavin is a fantasy author, short story enthusiast, and nature lover. When he’s not reading, writing, or exploring the outdoors, he is likely playing games. His board game collection is probably too big for someone living in a small apartment, and he has enough yet-to-be-played video games to fill a lifetime. His favorite book is "The Name of the Wind". His favorite author is Edward Abbey. His favorite game is "Dark Souls III", and he’d be more than happy to spend the day talking about lore, bosses, and game mechanics.
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