Character motivation is the driving force behind a story. If your character doesn’t have a reason to take a step forward, your entire story comes to a grinding halt. But it’s important to develop motivation that is both believable and realistic to the character.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at the four main areas to consider when developing your character’s motivation and why it’s so important to both your character and the story.
How to discover character motivation
What does your character want?
The first thing you have to figure out is what exactly your character wants. This can be either very easy or very challenging depending on how well you know your character and the trajectory of your story.
Everyone wants something in life. Depending on the nature of your story, what your main character wants can vary greatly. If you’re writing a mystery, your main character is likely going to want to solve the mystery. If you’re writing a fantasy, your main character will likely want to stop a threat of some kind. Your character can want anything as long as it makes sense for the character and the story.
Why do they want it?
This is the heart of character motivation. The ‘why’ is what will push your character to keep moving forward at all costs. The ‘why’ needs to be strong enough to keep your character after their goal throughout the book. If there is not a deep reason behind the desire, readers will not buy into your story and won’t be willing to follow your character to the end.
There are two main areas to look to find your ‘why’: Internally and externally. If you look internally, you’re considering your character’s basic personality and makeup. For example, a stubborn character might be determined to reach their goal simply because this personality trait will not allow them to give up easily. If this is a consistent character trait, it may be enough to push your character.
If you look externally, you may want to consider what event or person may have had an influence on your character. For instance, if a family member was kidnapped, this external factor would dictate your character’s desire. You also might want to look at your character’s past. Did something major happen to them or someone they care about that might shed some light on what they’re after and why?
You’ll likely need a combination of internal and external factors to explain your ‘why’ but one should be the most dominate.
Why can’t they have it?
Once you know what your character wants and why, it’s time to consider what is standing in their way. This could be a person, or it could be a situation or set of circumstances holding them back.
If you’re dealing with a person, consider why this person is in the way. Are they intentionally trying to hinder your character, or is this person simply after the same thing as your character (like a job)? If they’re trying to hinder your character, why? (And if they are actively trying to hurt your character, that likely means you have a villain. If you want some tips on creating awesome villains, check out this post!)
If you’re dealing with a situation or set of circumstances, consider how your character came to be in this situation and how much of a struggle it would be to overcome. For example, if your character is on the verge of losing their house and wants to save it, you’d first want to think about what happened to their finances that put them in this situation, what the time constraints are, and how much money they’d have to raise to keep their house. Understanding what they have to overcome is important because you need to be sure to give your character enough motivation to overcome whatever you’re throwing at them.
What will they risk to get it?
This is where we start to look at the stakes of your story. What is your character willing to risk and/or lose to get what they want? If your character wants to save their friend’s job, are they willing to risk their own to speak out? If they want to save their world from an evil sorcerer, are they willing to risk the life to do so?
Figuring out how much your character is willing to risk serves two purposes. First, it adds an element of stress, tension, and conflict to your story, which is sure to make your book more interesting and your readers more invested. Second, it shows your readers just how much their desire means to your character. This aids in deepening your character’s motivation and emphasizing the importances of that desire to your readers.
Why character motivation is important
It pushes character growth
The first reason character motivation is so important to your story is that it pushes your character to grow. In order to get the things we want, we often have to step out of our comfort zones. This should be true for your character as well. They may have to speak out when they’re afraid, fight when they’re not sure they’ll win, use a skill they’re not sure they have full command of, or confront a person or situation they’ve been avoiding.
Walking away from any of these situations is an easy thing to do. In most cases, it’s preferable. The only reason we don’t walk away in real life is because our desire and motivation is stronger than any fear and discomfort we may face. And because of that, we do the things that scare us and often grow as a result. Your characters will have the same experiences. This will make your character relatable, which builds a connection with your reader.
It gives the plot direction
Additionally, the character’s desires and motivations are what gives your plot a direction. Without character motivation, there is no step forward for your character to take. It won’t matter that the evil sorcerer wants to destroy the world if your character doesn’t feel motivated to stop them. Without your character’s motivation and drive, there is no story.
However, it’s important that your character’s motivation be believable. Otherwise, you may have a hard time getting readers to buy into your book. If you have a character who is driven by a stubborn desire to succeed, they need to be stubborn in other areas of their life too, not just with regard to the plot-driving motivation. Human behavior and character consistantcy are at the heart of believable character motivation, which in turn, is the backbone of an engaging and belivable story.
What about more minor characters?
Most of what we talked about so far applies primarily to the protagonist. After all, they’re the ones who are driving the story, so it makes sense that they’re motivation would be the priority to uncover. But it’s important not to forget the more minor characters.
Everyone in your book should want something. Sometimes those wants will line up with what your character wants, but sometimes they might not. Take the time to figure out the main motivation for each of your main characters and important supporting characters. This will lead to more dynamic and realistic situations and conflicts, which can only strengthen your story.
I hope this helps you find your character’s motivation!
Now it’s your turn: What do you think about when you look at your character’s motivation? Is there something I missed? Tell me about it in the comments!
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