Thinking About Character Motivations
Whether it’s about why a character would commit murder or why someone would want a do-over in life, I get a lot of questions about character motivations. This is a very important question to ask yourself to develop a believable character because for every action and decision that is made there is some sort of motivation. You eat because you’re hungry, you sleep because you’re tired, you plot to take over the country because the current government killed your sister and framed it on you to further their political agenda. Or maybe you eat because nobody can turn down the deliciousness that is mint chocolate ice cream, you sleep because you’ve got a ridiculous migraine from all the ice cream, and you plot to take over the world because you plan to outlaw eating mint chocolate chip ice cream to have it all for yourself. No matter what the motive is the important thing is that the character has one. To help you come up with one for whatever insanity you’re planning (the scenarios I’ve seen from all of you make me equally proud and baffled) I’ve come up with a few points to consider to get your thinking gears moving.
1. Consider how it relates to the main plot and subplot(s).
Going back to taking over the country, there are millions of ways this story could unfold. What differentiates each and what makes it interesting is why the character wants to do this. Martin Scorsese once said “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” This is the way a character’s motive works: your story tells the reader what happens but the why and how is always more interesting. So ask yourself what kind of impact you want this motive to have on the plot because it is what will drive everything. When a character doesn’t have a motivation (like a villain who is evil because) there is no direction and no intrigue in the events as they unfold.
2. Is it out of fear or desire?
To put it very simply, character motivation is fueled by either fear or desire (or maybe both). You could eat because you saw someone else eating cake and now you really crave some too, or you could eat because you fear dying of hunger. There are always primal fears and desires like the desire for survival, companionship and happiness and a fear of death and pain. These are great and can often come up but also try to personalize them to your character so the reader feels why it is important to them. Once you having something fueling the motivation it becomes much more real and gives you a better idea of how to use it.
3. Make it fit with the genre.
Along with personalizing to the character, it’s good to keep in mind the tropes of the genre (remember tropes are not the same as clichés). In a romance the reader expects one of the motivations to be love, in a thriller it’s often about a fight for personal survival and/or to save someone or something. The reason this is important is because it would be odd for a character’s main motivation in a story about saving the country from foreign invasion to be becoming a pianist. Unless, of course the story is really about a young talent who loses their chance to travel to a music school because of war, but now the plot has changed, hasn’t it? There can be multiple motivations, especially when you cross genres like a YA adventure, or thriller with a romance but just remember that readers who give your work a try have certain expectations based on the genre so either try to match or rethink the genre you’re really writing.
4. External and internal motivations.
External motivations are ones that are imposed on your character by external forces while internal motivations come from within themselves (personal desires). For example, take a police officer tasked with finding a kidnapped victim. They have the external motivation of solving this case because it is their job and failing at it would be failing their assignment and leaving a life in peril. They could also have many other personal motivations driving them like having lost their best friend to trafficking or something completely unrelated, like they are motivated to make their little kid proud. You can also try to make these motivations specific to differentiate from characters, at least in your own mind so you can weave that into the characters. External motivations can push the character into the plot but the internal ones can keep them going when things get tough and make readers truly sympathize with them.
5. Finally, do your homework.
No matter how many tips you read here or anywhere else, none of it is going to matter if you don’t sit down and work out your character’s motivations to fit them and your plot. If you need motivations for something that you might not be familiar with (eg. why someone would commit a specific crime) or you need more information about the topic…RESEARCH! Remember, remember, remember that there are no cutting corners when it comes to writing so take a seat, let your mind explore the possibilities, and get to work.