What is character motivation?
Character motivation is simply how a character behaves throughout a story. It is the reason for their actions and their responses to other people and situations.
A character could be motivated by their core values and beliefs or by the environment and other people. When writing a story, a character’s motivation is how the writer can determine their characteristics and personality.
Why character motivation matters
For the reader
Imagine a novel in which the main character has no driving motivations. They just go from place to place, doing things, but the reader has no understanding of why. That sounds like a pretty dull story, doesn’t it?
Character motivation is important for readers to understand the characters and to empathize with them. The reader can become hooked from the first chapter if a character’s motivation is clear. This allows the reader to follow them on their journey and to root for their success. It also means that if there are any negative consequences along the way, the reader cares about what happens next.
With an understanding of why the character is motivated, readers can feel a connection with the protagonist. Even if they make mistakes or do things wrong, the reader will still be rooting for them. They will follow the protagonist through challenges and hope they overcome them.
Character motivations also allow the reader to empathize with the character’s interpersonal conflicts. This also allows them to feel emotionally invested in their growth throughout the story.
Humans are complex and a well-written character will also be complex.
For the writer
If a writer doesn’t give their protagonist any strong character motivations, they will struggle to write the story.
They might have a strong idea of how the plot will progress and just focus on this. But this can end up feeling very flat and meaningless.
They may end up just writing a description of events in which the character just moves from A to B. There will be no character arc or progression and the reader will probably just not care.
Often, the beginning is an introduction to the character and understanding of who they are. The middle is the obstacles they must overcome. And the end is the climax and the character reach their goals.
Without a reason for this journey, there will be no obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. A story ends when the character’s motivations are fulfilled, as this is where the tension and excitement end. With no motivations, there is no excitement throughout and no reason for the story.
What does the protagonist want? What obstacles are in the way of them reaching their goals? How will they overcome these obstacles?
Answering these questions within your story makes for a compelling character.
Types of motivation
External character motivation
External character motivation refers to any environmental or survival needs. This might relate to simply surviving a difficult situation, how a character can protect their family, or how they will make money to gain shelter and food.
Often these types of needs can be understood using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943).
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is commonly demonstrated using a pyramid. This includes the most basic requirements at the bottom and the lesser achieved at the top.
The most basic needs are known as physiological needs. Next are safety needs, followed by love and belonging. Further up is esteem, and finally, self-actualization.
Both in real life and in fiction, humans require these physiological needs to survive. These needs must be met before they can advance up the hierarchy. Therefore, people’s motivations are often based on one or more of these. Examples of these needs include:
- food and water
A lacking of any one of these needs can alone be enough character motivation.
- personal security
Love and belonging
This means complete self-fulfillment.
When writing a fictional character, it is important to remember these different requirements and needs.
Focusing on one or two of them can provide sufficient character motivation for the development of a plot. But remember, these are all important if we want to reach self-actualization.
Internal character motivation
Internal motivators relate to a person’s thoughts or feelings. They may be conscious or unconscious but are the driving factors behind their journey.
Below are some of the most common internal character motivations.
In novels and films, a character’s revenge is often driven by something extreme.
For example, the villain killed their family and now they must get their revenge.
Money can often be a strong driving force for all of us. In fiction, this will be more extreme than in real life.
For example, a character may join a gang or mob, turn to crime, or tread on other people to get to the top.
We all have an innate goal to survive. Writers may use this in a plot to motivate characters.
For example, the protagonist could survive a plane crash and then find they are the only person on a deserted island. Or there is a zombie apocalypse and there are just a few people left trying to survive.
Love and desire are common themes throughout fiction, even if they are not the protagonist’s primary goal. There will often be extreme challenges to face to reach their love.
For example, they must fight dragons or monsters to rescue the damsel in distress. Or they need to journey across the world on foot to get to their beau.
Humans are curious creatures and we often want to know more about how things work or visit unknown territories.
Examples include adventurers exploring ruins or going out to space to discover some important thing.
A sense of guilt can be a good motivation for a protagonist. It can be a handy way for a writer to explore a character’s growth and progression.
The protagonist may have committed an evil deed and now have a desire to redeem themself. Or alternatively, they now run away in shame as a result of this bad deed.
Character motivation may be due to a sense of duty. The protagonist might embark on a great quest of discovery or fight to protect their country.
A simple motivator may just be that the character wishes to better their life and feel happier.
They might go on an adventure to experience something new, or simply want to find happiness with family and friends.
Similarly, a character’s motivation may be to create more purpose in their life. They could go on a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Or they may wish to find a long-lost family member or friend.
In real life we each experience internal conflicts as well as external motivations. Each human is complex so a writer must try to create complex characters that readers can relate to.
A good way to do this is to combine a number of motivations. This is because the story needs to feel believable to the reader, even in a fictional or fantasy world.
Fiction writers need to start their story with a basic understanding of the protagonist. This is required in order to build on this character throughout the story.
For example, the story begins by explaining that the character experienced something traumatic in their childhood. The main focus of the story could be an external conflict such as surviving an apocalypse. These two events aren’t linked. However, the protagonist’s desire to stay alive now is driven by their coping with the earlier trauma.
Look at your own life and past events. Perhaps you may notice hidden motivations from your past that affect you now.
For example, if you were bullied at school, you may want to spend time helping kids with low self-esteem. Or, someone laughed at you for being stupid, so you went to college and became a rocket scientist.
Therefore, a good story will combine motivations arising throughout the character’s life. This will create a complex and realistic human, with needs and desires.
A crucial part of exploring character motivation is through a character arc. This is how the character’s needs and emotions develop and change throughout the story.
As a character progresses along their journey, it is likely that they will learn new things and have numerous experiences. Thus, these elements of the story will likely result in emotional growth. They also could possibly result in the character’s motivations changing as well.
There may be a shift in focus, as different things become important, or certain challenges are overcome. This is important for writers to remember when considering a protagonist’s early motivations. There should be flexibility in the character’s development to allow for personal growth and change.
What not to do when writing
Forget other characters
In most stories, there is more than just one character. Sometimes, writers can become so focused on their main protagonist, that they forget to give depth to the villains or background characters.
If you want to include a villain in your novel, give them a backstory and some motivation. It is unlikely that someone is going to be evil for the sake of being evil. So consider, perhaps their love has been killed and they turned bad. Or they were bullied so severely that they now want revenge on everyone in the world.
It is not always necessary to understand or empathize with a villain. But it is important you make their motivation matter too. Give them some depth too, so the reader can understand why they are so evil.
Also, don’t miss any other characters’ motivations. If a protagonist has friends on his journey with him, explain why. Because, if they have no motivation, they would not be on this journey. Maybe one of them is in love with the protagonist and would follow him anywhere. Maybe they lost their family to the same villain, so also want revenge.
Readers don’t like to feel stupid or patronized. Often, they are very adept at filling in blanks and using their imaginations to connect the dots.
Writers don’t need to explicitly explain every small detail, as the reader can usually figure it out. As long as they create a picture with depth and make hints at different motivations and feelings, the reader can understand how it all links together.
Stick to one character’s motivation
Characters need to have the opportunity to grow and change their motivations as the story progresses. Therefore, writers need to allow this to happen, to make for real character development.
Sometimes, a writer may have such a set idea of how the plot will progress, that they end up forcing the character into situations that are difficult to believe. Allow your characters to evolve along with the plot. Character motivation may change throughout the story and this is acceptable.
Being rigid and forcing a character to stay the same throughout will stop the story from flowing organically.