At surface level, you may think that the foundation of story writing is building the plot—after all, there’s no story without a plot, right?
However, when you read a story, what really keeps you turning the pages in your investment in the characters and your interest in what happens to them.
The best writers are able to sweep you into the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, making you feel invested enough to want what they want, and sometimes even to dread what they dread.
One of the most powerful things you can do to help your readers connect with your protagonist is develop a clear character motivation.
What Is Character Motivation?
In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron explores in detail the importance of knowing why your character would care about something.
Character motivation is the answer to that big “why.” It’s the reason behind everything your character thinks, feels, and does. It includes the life that your character has already lived through (sometimes known as backstory), but it actually factors into who your character is.
For example, if your story is about a girl whose world is about to get invaded by aliens, that’s fine. Everyone can quickly understand why that’s a disaster that needs to be averted.
But the question is, why does it matter, specifically, to your main character? Is it a big deal to her because she and her loved ones may die as a result? Or is it a big deal to her because she’s actually an alien and the aliens are after her to bring her back to their planet?
The Importance of Clear Motivation
You can see that the motivation behind the character’s actions play a pivotal role in the story. That’s why, as early as the beginning stages, when you’re creating your character profile, it’s a good idea to start thinking about this for each of your characters.
As Lisa Cron puts it: “Your novel isn’t about the external change your What If is going to put your protagonist through; it’s about why that change matters to her.”
Here are some main reasons why it’s important to create or dig up motivations for your characters:
Motivations help you and your readers understand your characters.
As a writer, knowing your character’s motivation will actually make it easier to write how they would logically respond to the events that unfold.
This makes your character seem more real, even to you as their creator: you’re not just inventing things as you go along; instead, you’ve created a character who practically breathes on his own, because he responds in a way that’s logical to what’s driving him.
It makes unlikeable characters more relatable.
The villain in the story always gets the short end of the stick. But what happens when you actually know why he’s so wicked? As a writer, you may have more sympathy for him, and it also helps you create a more realistic antagonist that your readers may be tempted to pity instead of outright hate.
And in the end, an antagonist that your readers can relate to will be more memorable than someone that just does an endless chain of evil acts for no reason at all.
Motivation makes your plot more believable.
Because understanding your character’s motivation lets you create a logical response pattern, your readers will also find your story—and your characters—more realistic. And once you succeed in doing that, you stand a better chance at having them continue to the next page, and the next, and the next!
Example of Character Motivation in Literature
In the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara starts off as a teenager in love with Ashley Wilkes—who is suddenly engaged to his cousin Melanie.
Throughout the book, Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley affects all her decisions, some examples of which are listed here:
- To get Ashley’s attention, she flirts with all the boys at a garden party, and ends up getting a marriage proposal from Charles;
- Jilted by Ashley, she agrees to marry Charles;
- Later, because Ashley asked her to promise to take care of Melanie, she does so throughout the difficult time of the war;
- After the war, when Ashley comes home to Tara, Scarlett’s family’s plantation, she does everything she can to provide not just for her own family but also for Ashley, Melanie, and their son;
- After another rejection from Ashley, she leaves for Atlanta with the intention of getting money from Rhett Butler, even if it means marrying him;
- When Ashley tells her they intend to leave Tara, Scarlett hires and manipulates Ashley to be her manager at her lumber yard in Atlanta.
This shows us how powerful a character’s motivation can be: in fact, it’s this underlying desire that drives the entire story all the way up to its tragic end.
How to Find Your Character’s Drive
Just because you create characters for a fictional novel doesn’t mean you can instantaneously come up with their motivation. It’s easy to come up with possible goals for your characters, but you need to delve deep and find a driving force that they can’t resist.
Sometimes it may take a few tries to find the motivation that’s strong enough to drive your story forward. These tips will help make the process more efficient for you:
1. Don’t discount a person’s basic needs.
While it may seem simplistic, using the well-known Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can actually help you pinpoint the motivation for your characters.
At the bottom of the triangle are the basic physiological needs for things like food, clothing, and shelter, followed by needs for safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization.
According to this theory, a person needs to have their most basic needs met before they can focus on higher needs. Knowing at which point of the ladder your character is in can help you pinpoint their most overarching motivation.
2. Differentiate between your character’s goals and their motivation.
One way of understanding the difference is that goals are something your character wants to achieve, and the motivation is the reason why they want to achieve that goal.
For example, two characters who want to earn a million dollars by age 30 may have two different motivations: one may want to earn the money to pay for his younger sister’s eye operation, while the other wants to prove to his father, who used to berate him for being useless, that he can succeed at what he does.
3. Flesh out their backstory.
Some writers may hesitate to write a backstory, but you will not be able to find a strong motivation for your character unless you know their past. After all, your characters didn’t just arrive on the page out of thin air: they grew up and had life experiences that shaped who they are now.
Take time to write out a backstory for your characters, particularly parts that relate to their goals and motivation. Don’t treat backstory as a waste of time: although you may not include these writings directly in your novel, the time you take getting to know your characters will pay big dividends as you start writing the story.
4. Challenge each motivation you come up with.
When you start to come up with possible forces that drive your character, challenge each of them by constantly asking, “Why?” This will help you dig deeper.
Sometimes you may find something under the surface, while other times you may have to scratch off that motivation as something that they probably want, but isn’t strong enough to keep them moving.
Find What Drives Your Character
Understanding your characters is the first step toward helping your readers connect with them.
If you want to write characters that are truly memorable, make sure you know them as deeply as you can, so you will be able to write them in a way that lets your readers go deep with them as well.
What’s your motivation? Tell us what drives you in the comments below!
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