Characters almost never have just one motive. They could have minor motives and a major motive, or two major motives, or some other combination.
When these motives show up depends on your story and what happens to your character.
The First Motive:
Your main character or your POV character needs a motive right from the beginning. This motive can be small. It can be achieved without difficulty. What it must do is make your character do something while also revealing a little bit about your character.
For example, the main character could be at an auction where they are betting on a vase that matches one they already have. The main character bets thousands of dollars in a heated auction between someone else, but eventually wins and gets the vase. Their first motive has been achieved and it has revealed that this character is ambitious, wealthy, and has fine taste.
The next minor motive could be to get the vase home and place it next to the matching vase. This moves the character again, but there is still no inciting incident or major motive.
The Inciting Incident:
This is where the major motive often shows up, but it can show up earlier. Let’s say this character decides to have the vase cleaned. Let’s also say there is a lid to it. The character opens the lid, finds ashes inside, dumps them out, and cleans the vase. But it’s actually in urn, not a vase, and now the ghost of the remains is set free.
The ghost terrorizes our character and makes their life a mess. The ghost says they’ll go away if our character can complete a to-do list for them. Completing the list and getting the ghost away become the major motives for the character. This is what carries the character throughout the rest of the plot.
BUT, you must have a risk so that your character has ambition to reach this motive. We’ll give our character a time limit and if he doesn’t complete the list within that amount of time, our character will lose all his money and valuables while also having his body possessed. Our character, who loves his lavish lifestyle, fears this risk. This makes their motive stronger.
Let’s back up a bit and go back to the first motive. What if our character lost the auction and there were no ashes in the urn? what if he needed the complete set of vases so that he could sell them together for a much larger profit? Money is the motive, but so is getting the vase. This becomes the major motive and the character spends the rest of the story trying to get the vase back. You still need a risk though. We’ll create a buyer of the vases, who expects to have them in a certain condition in a certain amount of time. If not, they’ll drop out character as a provider.
Effects of Motives:
Motives have effects on other people and your character.
Our character is now so obsessed with finishing the list that he doesn’t show up at work for three days and fails to take care of himself. His obsession with keeping his lifestyle and his life ruin his physical and mental health.
His friends, who haven’t heard form him in weeks, get angry and believe something is deeply wrong. They try to remove him to get him help, but this threatens his motive and raises the risks. He now has the motive to get away from everyone because one motive leads to another.
If a character’s motive changes halfway through the story, it’s because of a turning point that provides new information. You need a reason for your character to go against the previous risks to pursue this new motive.
For this, we can make our character visit someone who deals with ghosts after he comes to a place on the to-do list that says “give away all your money” and after he realizes that he’s running out of time.
Surprise! If he destroys the vase, he destroys the ghost. But our character needs the vase so that he can sell both for a profit. He has already lost his job. He needs the money. He uses his wealth to create an exact replica of the same material because his new motive.
Other characters are going to have motives. When creating these motives, think about how important these motives are to the main plot and to sub plots. Character motives that are important to the main plot should intertwine, cross, or work against the protagonist’s motive. As mentioned above, our character’s friends had the motive of getting him professional help for his health. This motive worked against our character and gave him a small motive to get away.
Motives that relate to sub plots should still have some relevance to the main character in some way. Maybe our character works with a partner at work who is excited to get a report done. The prize is a large bonus, so this character needs our character’s full cooperation. However, our character ignores this because of his other motives, thus angering his partner and causing them both to lose the bonus. This character has failed their motive and now has a motive to get revenge on our protagonist.
Now we’re going to introduce another character. This character is the other person who was betting on that vase. They’re a ghost hunter. They break into the house while our main character is getting the other vase made. They capture and leave because their motive was to get the ghost, not the vase. They don’t care for the vase now that the ghost is gone.
Reaching small motives or motives that intertwine with the main motive result in mini climaxes. Failing or succeeding in these motives creates new motives and should push the plot along.
Our character now has two vases that are exact replicas of each other. He drives home with the fake in the car, runs in, grabs the vase, and leaves before the ghost can bother him. He drives far away where he destroys the vase in a mini climax even though the ghost is already gone. However, our character is too unstable to notice this. He replaces it with the replica.
But, wait, a mini climax? Yes. That was not the major climax. The major climax is a week later when our character has cleaned up and calmed down.
The client he is selling the vase to comes by to pick it up. They inspect it and go on their way, but an antique expert checks it out later and determines it is a fake. Our character is sued for his scheme or something and ends up losing all his money.
Our character’s former business partner, who is angered about the missed bonus, has a motive for revenge. If they had gotten that bonus, they would’ve been able to pay the bills and they wouldn’t have lost their house. So now they show up at our character’s home with a gun and shoots our protagonist.
Only our character grabbed the wrong vase (thus selling the replica and the haunted vase to the buyer) and the ghost hunter captured the ghost instead of destroying it for a motive I haven’t come up with yet. And now that our character’s time is out, the ghost comes back while our protagonist is dying and thus our protagonist lives on in a body he cannot control. The end.
Creating large motives happens over time. Lots of small motives may become one large one or a small motive could build up on its own. Our character’s overall motive (make a profit) was simple, but it escalated and destroyed our character’s life.
Motives can occur at any time. An inciting incident can trigger them, or your character’s personality can lead to these motives. Motives lead to other motives and they are reached because characters do not want to face the risks of failing. Motives inspire and affect other motives. Stories revolve around motives.
For more on character motivation and coming up with motivations, go through my motive tag.