Writing Tips #10: Character Motivation
Greetings, fellow writers, and welcome back to another installment of Writing Tips! Today we’ll be discussing character motivation: what is it, why it’s important, and how you can apply it to your writing.
Motivation is the aspect of a character which drives them to act and directs their choices throughout the story. As such, it is one of the most critical areas of character creation.
For me, my characters tend not to come alive until I’ve spent some time writing from their perspective. Things like history/personality emerge gradually, then get threaded back through the book more fully in revision. However, there are certain things you want to establish early on in your process. At the top of this list is motivation: if you cannot identify your POV character’s primary motivation within the first few scenes, you don’t know that character well enough. If your readers cannot identify your POV character’s primary motivation within the first few scenes, they’re likely to put the book down.
You can approach this from a number of different angles, but for today, let’s examine a list of critical motivation-related questions to consider.
1. What is your character’s primary goal for the story? Or, what is your character trying to accomplish? This is the most basic consideration, but the more specificity you can inject into your answer, the easier it’ll be to develop a solid base of motivation in your characters.
Let’s look at Zuko, from Avatar: the Last Airbender. His primary goal is established very early on: he wants to restore his honor. Now, that’s fine goal in itself, but as the series progresses, this straightforward goal gains depth and nuance. He doesn’t just want to regain his honor. He wants to return home. He wants his banishment to end. He wants his father’s love and acceptance. “Regaining his honor” encapsulates all of these individual motivations (or so he thinks), which is why he pursues this goal so fiercely throughout the first two seasons.
The fewer primary goals a character has, the more depth and specificity each of those goals requires. That said, be aware that goals and motivations are not the same thing. The goal is the what. The motivation is the why. So with that in mind …
2. Why does your character want what they want? This question might be implied by your answer to the first question, or it might be something you have to work out separately. Either way, this question deals with the very core of your character’s motivation, and thus requires special consideration.
Using the same example as above, we can see that the root of Zuko’s desire to regain his honor is to acquire the love/acceptance of his father. Those other sub-motivations factor in, but when you get right down to the core of his character, the “I want to regain my honor” statement is actually just a cover for “I want my father’s love.” (although it could also be argued that his core motivation is “I want to have a destiny,” depending on how you interpret his character).
Often, the “why” is implied, rather than outright stated. In many cases, the character can’t even articulate this aspect of their motivation for themselves, as it exists on an almost subconscious level. But you as the author must know the answer to this, otherwise your characters’ stated motivations/goals are going to ring hollow.
3. What is your character willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals/satisfy their motivations? In other words, how far is your character willing to go to get what they want? What moral/social/emotional compromises are they willing to make, and will there be anything left of them once they’ve sacrificed these things?
In Avatar: the Last Airbender, Zuko makes a number of bitter sacrifices to achieve his goal. He spends three years at sea, searching for the Avatar. He at one point sabotages Zhao, a rival antagonist, to keep the Avatar out of Zhao’s hands, even though in doing so he is working against the interests of his nation. And finally, when given the choice between returning home with his honor restored and betraying his uncle, who has been a surrogate father to him since his banishment, Zuko chooses treachery.
The severity of sacrifices your character has to make should be proportionate to how important their motivation is to who they are. That moment when your hero has to choose between getting what they want and doing the right thing is often the most powerful moment of the story. No matter their choice, the consequences should be huge.
Note: your character’s choice should also fit with the promises you’ve made earlier in the story. You don’t want to set up an epic Hero’s Journey, then have it end with your character choosing selfishness. Conversely, if you have a dark, gritty story, having your character made the wrong choice might be just the thing to make your ending work.
4. Will fulfilling their primary motivation actually make this character happy? The answer to this question will depend heavily on the type of story you’re writing, but let’s have another look at our example first.
After the betrayal of his uncle, Zuko returns home as an honored hero, but it swiftly becomes clear that it’s a
hollow victory. Although he now has everything he ever wanted–his home, his honor, his father’s acceptance–he
remains unfulfilled. His anger at himself and the cognitive dissonance which arises from the choices he’s made eventually lead him to turn his
back on his father and join the Avatar, allowing him to truly redeem himself, thus earning far greater satisfaction and happiness in the end.
With many characters, the fulfillment of their primary motivation may be your story’s happy ending. In other cases, the sacrifices needed to reach that goal make the ending bittersweet. And often, the fulfillment of a given character’s motivation comes in an unexpected form, satisfying the underlying desires even if the character’s stated goals are not accomplished. By examining the goals, motivations, choices, and consequences of your characters, you’ll be able to build a richer, more satisfying story.
Thanks again for reading. If you found this lesson helpful, feel free to reblog it or leave a comment below. If you have any questions about this topic (or any other writing-related topic), just let me know. If it’s a good question, it might even inspire its own lesson. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the next one.