February 19th, 2016

What is Your Character’s Driving Force?

Laurie Schnebly Campbell

We all want interesting characters. People who fascinate us. People who make readers feel intrigued. People who do more than sit in the garden and gaze at the grass. And we’ve all read books where, even if the characters aren’t spending every minute gazing at the grass, they aren’t doing much else to make the story exciting, either.


A brand new writer faced with such a scenario might decide, “Hey, I know what’ll make this story exciting: a kidnaper jumps out of the rosebushes!”

Or “he gets bitten by a snake carrying some rare disease!”

Or “she falls in love with the gardener who’s already married!”

Those could certainly start a story moving, all right.

But do you see what’s missing?

If this character is the type of person who — even when confronted by the danger of kidnappers or the trauma of a rare disease or the hopelessness of impossible love — doesn’t do anything to change their situation, the reader’s going to get bored.

Picture this poor snake-bitten hero. His eyes are swelling shut; his skin is burning with fever; and after three days in bed staring at the ceiling fan…


…he’s now feeling better. So he goes out to sit in the garden and gaze at the grass.

Or picture a heroine falling in love with the married gardener. She wishes he’d leave his wife, but she doesn’t do anything to make that happen. She just plucks petals off the daisies and imagines now nice it would be if he loved her.

The story isn’t GOING anywhere, right?

That’s because it’s missing something. Not just action, but the most important ingredient:

The character’s driving force.

Our main characters need to be driven by something. Not simply an external mission like “escape the kidnaper” or “avoid the snake” or “murder the gardener’s wife,” although those are all perfectly understandable goals.

For that matter, so are goals like “win an Olympic gold medal” or “discover a cure for cancer” or “find where the stagecoach robbers hid the loot.”

Gold coins

But those aren’t enough. What’s going to keep us interested the entire time a character is working to win that medal or find that cure or thwart those robbers?

What makes THIS character different from someone else who’s ALSO driven by the desire for Olympic victory or medical discovery or recovered treasure?

Something vital — their motivation.

Motivation is the heart of GMC.

swimgogglesYou’ve heard about the magical trio of goal-motivation-conflict, right? Debra Dixon is the first writer I know of who used that phrase to describe the essential elements of a story. And the fact that motivation’s in the center shows how vital it is.

Let’s look at some character (say, named Chris) who wants to win the Olympic gold medal in swimming. What’s driving Chris?

Maybe it’s the desire to feel superior. Or to achieve fame. Or to honor a beloved coach.

Regardless of motivation, this character’s ACTIONS aren’t going to change. Chris is going to be training, practicing, working and straining and striving to be the very best swimmer at the Olympic Games no matter what caused the desire for a medal.

But each one of those motivations will make Chris a different person.

For instance, think about someone who wants to feel superior. Think about someone who wants celebrity. Think about someone who wants to reward a mentor.

Three different people, right?

Which one are you writing about?

That’s crucial to know.

Or is it someone else you’re writing about? For instance, how would good old Chris be different if driven by some OTHER reason for wanting the gold medal?

Suppose it’s a quest for atonement. Or money. Or love.

Looking for love

Again, those three would be very different people, reacting to the same setbacks and triumphs in very different ways…depending on what drives them.

Motivation is not only a driving force, it also makes the character consistent.

The actions and beliefs and decisions of someone with a strong motivation will make sense to the reader — even if there are times when fellow characters don’t realize what’s driving Chris way deep down. And that’s okay. Chris might not (yet) realize it either.

That’s because characters, just like the rest of us, don’t necessarily know motivates them.

After all, they might be so busy working to win the Olympic swimming medal or cure cancer or find the stagecoach-robbery loot that they don’t even stop to think about why they’re doing this.

Which is fine.

They don’t need to, right up front. 

But the author does.


Because as the plot unfolds and the character makes decisions, readers who wonder why they’re driven to do X instead of Y or to value A instead of B are gonna need an answer. THAT’s what keeps the story intriguing and believable, both at the same time.

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a story and thinking “That doesn’t seem like something this person would do,” you’ve come across a character whose motivation isn’t well-defined.

The author never figured it out.

And we’ve all seen books where that’s painfully obvious. Books where people act in whatever way the plot demands, even though it seems out of character.

For a plausible character, there’s gotta be a driving-force motivation.

Do you know what it is?


By the way, that’s a prize-drawing question. If at least 20 people post “a character in this book I’m reading or writing now or a few years ago is/was motivated by ____,” one’ll win free registration to my four-week Plotting Via Motivation class at WriterUniv.com in March.

So if you’ve got some character in mind, either one of your own or one in a book you’ve read, think about what lies behind this person’s goal. What motivates them? You don’t need to identify the book title / author unless you want to, but DO identify the character’s driving force.

And we’ll wind up with a fabulous collection of motivations!

~ Laurie
(who can’t wait to see what those might be)

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Laurie

LaurieCampbellLaurie Schnebly Campbell combines her advertising agency work with a background in counseling as well as writing fiction for Harlequin Special Edition — where she won RT’s Best Of The Year over Nora Roberts — and non-fiction, like her book on using enneagrams to create characters.

She began teaching classes online every month at WriterUniv.com, and in person around the English-speaking world, after seeing a bumper sticker that changed her life: “Those who can, do. Those who believe others can ALSO do, teach.”



Photo credits: www.FreeStockPhotos.biz

148 comments to What is Your Character’s Driving Force?

  • Great post, Laurie! I’m a pantser, so the first thing I get is a character. Then I go find things for them to do. 😉

    I’m working on a proposal for a new book now – Three disparate women who meet at a motorcycle safety course where they learn to ride. They become friends, and decide to take a cross-country motorcycle trip.

    Interesting plot (I hope), but the thing that will hold the whole thing together is WHY they chose to go on the trip. One is running away, one is trying to decide if the life she has is the one she wants, or is just the one given to her, and one…. well, I haven’t worked out that character yet.

    But man, I’m excited about the idea!

  • B R Johnson

    As my, untitled as yet, story starts the mc, Callie, has no motivation to change her circumstances. She has cared for her father who has Alzheimer’s for several years and expects to continue to do so, until he beats her with his walking cane and knocks her off the front porch causing severe injuries. They are both hospitalized and her scattered family is called in. As she recovers, she is motivated to demand that the family make other plans for their father. They think she should go back home with him and continue to care for him. She has always been such a mousy youngest sister the family thinks they can force her to conform, but little do they know. Conflict ensues.

    • B R, I love the brevity of your closing line — talk about a great way of summarizing the entire novel. 🙂

      And the fact that you open with Callie in a situation of stasis reminds me of Save The Cat screenwriter Blake Snyder’s observation that “stasis equals death.” Sounds like in her case that’s perilously close to the literal truth, so it’ll be cool seeing how she changes course!

  • Laurie, you always manage to crystallize my thinking and focus it so I
    go, “Oh, yeah! I get it!” This post is no exception. I’ll post about
    it on Twitter and FB to see if we can drive more folks to the truth,
    the light, and the way! lol

    I get stuck dealing with character motivation. My life is so
    pedestrian that coming up with reasons my heroine would go into a
    house with a killer is a challenge. Plotting is much easier for me. I
    did character development using interviews and astrological chart

    So what this post did for me was help me realize I was thinking too
    small. If I start with the big stuff–self-esteem going toward
    self-actualization fits my heroine well–then I can break out the small
    segment I need for this book I’m working on and pick up other pieces
    as the series progresses.

    My take-away: break down self-esteem and self-actualization into
    component parts and parcel them out over a number of books. Or am I
    wrong? Thanks for the post!

    • Sharon, you’re right on target in thinking about self-esteem and self-actualization as the core of motivation — in fact, that’s exactly what forms Maslow’s hierarchy! (Which, for anyone who’s been away from college psych classes as long as I have, has physical needs like food / safety at the base, then evolves up through the layers to make the world better for self & others.)

      So every story which follows that progression, even if it doesn’t begin at the level of needing food-water-shelter, is going to resonate with readers…because we’re all on that exact same journey.

  • This post comes at the perfect time for me. I’m at the heart of a revision process and now realize I need to clarify my hero’s motivations a bit earlier in the story or risk having him seem like a villain instead of a hero. He has a secret and must keep it from everyone so that no one but he (and the reader) will know why he’s behaving a certain way. If the reader isn’t clear about the “why” of it all, I’m guessing they won’t care about the “what”. Being in on the secret is half the fun. 🙂

    So…let’s see… “a character in this book I’m writing now is motivated by his love of family – or loyalty.”

    Great post, Laurie. As always.

    • Debora, what a great line: If the reader isn’t clear about the “why” of it all, they won’t care about the “what.” If ever there was a T-shirt slogan that summed up the essence of plotting via motivation, you just nailed it.

      And now that you’ve figured out his love of family, or loyalty, is his driving force, it’ll be a lot easier to weave that throughout the story…which, armed with those 14-point worksheets, you already KNOW how to do!

  • Maggie

    In the manuscript I’m working on at the moment (character sheets and outline done only) my heroine is in dire need for financial help to keep her estranged dead sister’s baby; and unfortunately there’s only one person she can turn to. She’s also dealing with grief and guilt, misplaced pride had stopped her from contacting her sister. Not to mention she’s insecure and perverse when threatened. She’s forced to step out of her comfort zone. As the romance unfolds she feels other emotions, meets other challenges. By the end of the story she’ll be her true self. It’s essential we know who our characters are, what they want, what they’re afraid of. What drives them.

    I loved your Plotting by motivation class when I did it last year Laurie and I’m already booked in to the one at the end of this month. New idea of course.
    Cheers, Maggie

    • Maggie, I like your differentiation between the need for financial help (the external goal) and the relief from grief & guilt (the driving force). Sounds like the pride which originally motivated her to stay away from Sis will be a big factor in her story — I can envision her as both a nurturer and an achiever.

      And how cool that I’ll get to see you in the upcoming class…it’ll be fun working on either this book or a whole new one!

  • the female character I’m writing is motivated by love and duty to family, so much so, she’s sacrificed her own happiness and now needs to find a way to break free


    • Denise, you’ve got a character in a very tough position which millions of readers will be able to identify with…what’s not to love about that?

      Without ever intending to, she’s let herself become a martyr — and if that’s okay with the family, they don’t deserve her. But the moment when SHE finally realizes that and makes the decision to break away will be a fabulous resolution, even if it’s only the beginning of her journey.

      Which could easily fill an entire book, or stand as the triumphant conclusion. Nice options to have, either way.

  • Great post as usual, Laurie. I am reading Michelle Moran’s “The Last Queen of India”, a historical fiction (set in the 1850s) about Rani Lakshmibai which is told through the perspective of Sita, a member of her all-women army. Sita is a young woman who has never been outside of her village–in fact, given the customs of those times, she has only stepped out of her house a couple of times–but is determined to join the Queen’s elite army. Her driving motivation is: the love of her sister (if chosen as part of the Queen’s army she will be able to save enough money for a dowry for her sister and thereby secure her future).
    Laurie, I know you will definitely want to read this book! 🙂

  • Adite, you’re right that I’ll definitely want to read this book! I remember you describing Rani Lakshmibai in a workshop about real-life heroines, and a story like this one sounds like a very enjoyable way to learn more.

    Wikipedia was okay, but there’s nothing like fiction to make truth come to life — thanks for the tip!

  • In my current novella, my hero thinks he’s motivated to never be poor again. He isn’t willing to admit he’s truly motivated by the need to be accepted.

    • Judy, that’ll be a treat to watch — I’m betting the readers will recognize his deepest desire long before he does, and then we’ll enjoy watching as he struggles to achieve what he THINKS he needs while knowing he’s barking up the wrong tree.

      Which, in real life, isn’t nearly as entertaining because there’s no guarantee the person ever WILL figure things out…but in fiction we’ve got the satisfaction of knowing it’ll turn out okay. 🙂

  • In my current WIP the heroine, Elise, is motivated to leave home and become a Harvey Girl to help her siblings save the family farm. When her younger brother is injured in an accident they have to use their accumulated savings for his medical bills, she discovers that working together as a family to help each other is more important than keeping the farm. Family is more important than possessions.

    • Joyce, how cool to read about a wanna-be Harvey Girl! Even if she winds up on the farm instead, it’ll be an adventure to see what she goes through on her trek toward the Harvey House.

      And you’ve already got a very happy ending figured out, which has me hoping the family will all go celebrate with dinner on a train someplace…

  • Getting a good strong motivation pinned down is soooo helpful. When I don’t have that, things just seem to unravel. Right now, I’m trying a different type of story and having a tough time picking a motivation — there’s so many good ones out there. I started with healing, then maybe revenge then making others happy then … I know her motivation will change a bit over the course of the book but if I don’t find her “inciting” motivation, I’ll never get to type the end!

    • Heidi, you’re right about how many good motivations are out there…I always stop when the list gets past 100, because otherwise where would it all end? 🙂

      And I like the idea of an “inciting” motivation, because you’re right that it could very well change as the story unfolds. Heck, you’ve been through this all before!

  • Janet B

    The character in the book I’m reading needs to pay off her father’s debt and is support for her sister.

    • Janet, paying off Dad’s debt and supporting Sis are very credible and honorable goals. Why does it matter to this character that she achieves those goals? Is she driven by the need to feel useful? Pride in her family’s appearance? Love for those who can’t help themselves?

      Those all sound like slightly selfish things, which is okay — it’ll make this character a lot more interesting to read about!

  • Hey Laurie! You’ve already heard a lot about the book I’m working on right now… so you might have guessed this, but my hero is motivated by the need to be seen (by himself and by others) as WHOLE. And my heroine is motivated by the desire to be independent (which makes a love plot a little complex!)

    • Delancey, that’s a great assessment for both characters — independence and wholeness are very understandable motivations. And it’s especially nice that while she views independence as being contradictory to love, he could very well be viewing love as being essential to wholeness.

      Which would mean she has all the more reason to flee being needed. Talk about wonderful complications…

  • Great post! I was a diehard panster prior to taking Laurie’s plotting workshop. I struggled at first, I think I was afraid that if I charted out the entire story I would lose interest in it and never finish, but Laurie showed me that plotting is just a frame and you still have a lot of room to let the story grow. It was then I finally understood that the “frame” actually made my concepts and stories stronger and more complex. I was able to dig deeper because I understood my characters better. I knew how they would react because I understood what was driving them. It was truly a “lightbulb” moment. I highly recommend that everyone take this course (especially if you are a panster), you won’t regret it. ~Mags

    • Mags, I like your analogy of the plot being just a frame — and wish I could take credit for having said it. 🙂

      Your process leading to the lightbulb moment was a wonderful thing…I’m still impressed by how you let yourself evolve without changing your essential style!

  • Irene Kessler

    My POV character starts out as a young girl in Ancient Israel. Everyone in her tribe thinks she is unacceptable because she is what we would call today, a Kleptomaniac. They want to cut her hands off but decide she is sick. They relent and banish her to the wilderness. Her motivation is the need to prove to people she is acceptable, which makes her a perfectionist, adding to the anxiety which caused the problem in the first place.

    • Irene, you’ve got a fascinating character there — she’s working against herself from Day One! I can see how, while in today’s culture her happy ending could result from realizing that being acceptable doesn’t require being perfect, in those days that sure might not be the case.

      Which takes us back to the more elemental of Maslow’s hierarchy, because she not only needs to survive in the wilderness but also needs to win approval from her culture…no wonder she’s stressed, poor thing.

  • Hi Laurie! I just finished writing the book that I took your Plotting Via Motivation class for. It’s in edits right now. The motivation for my main character is to take care of and love the baby she found and she’s driven by her past – a mother who neglected her and left her with low self-esteem and feeling worthless. She devotes her life to her child but it’s not just because she loves the baby. She wants to do something that will make a difference, not only in her own life but in the life of the child who isn’t really hers.

  • Laurie D

    Hello Laurie from Laurie D. Always enjoy your insights!

    For my current WIP, I’ve set-up the murderer with a motivation of Love. He is willing to kill to gain wealth to keep his wife because deep down he loves her. He believes she won’t stay and love him without his wealth and status. A villain to feel sorry for in the end. A twisted motivation.

    • Laurie, I like how you’re giving motivation to the bad guy as well as to the good guys — a plausible villain is a whole lot scarier than a cardboard-cutout villain, because it’s easy to imagine him as “the guy next door,” someone we think of as ordinary who might very well have this other trait we never spotted.

      And the fact that he views his motivation as a Good Thing is wonderfully chilling…not to mention very realistic!

  • Hi, Laurie. The character in my current WIP is an identical twin. She’s motivated to find her own identity and no longer be an indistinguishable part of the pair. I’m looking forward to taking Plotting via Motivation again.

    • Steph, what fun that I’ll get to see you in class again — I’m curious if you’ll be doing a rodeo-based story or something else, and glad I won’t have to wait long to find out!

      Hmm, an identical twin searching for identity…sounds like you’ve got a good one already in the works. I’ll never forget my editor saying “identical twins are JUICY.”

  • Hi, Laurie, great post as always! In the historical WIP I’m writing my hero has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove that African American cowboys can be just as good as their white counterparts. This motivation drives him to work harder, longer, and take risks. The consequences are not always positive. *grin*

    • Haley, this hero will be very easy to identify with — the desire to prove one’s own worth (plus that of one’s group) is something almost everyone has felt.

      And it’s easy to envision how that desire will get him in trouble, poor guy…I can’t wait to see what provides his ultimate realization and triumph! (That is, if you’re writing a happy-ending book — if not, he might never get it. Which would be a whole other kind of story!)

  • I took your class before and it has really helped me nail down my characters and plot which, a seat of the pants writer, is crucial to me. Great post full of great reminders!

    • Donna, it’s been so cool watching your career blossom! You’re one of those seat-of-the-pants writers who makes it look, in the finished product, like the whole thing was carefully orchestrated before you ever began typing “Chapter One.”

      Which just goes to show, there’s no inherently better way of writing — plotting and pantsing can both result in fabulous books.

  • Charlotte

    Hi, Laurie! Great blog!! In my romance novel, A Breed Apart, the romantic interest, Holt, thinks he’s motivated by saving his ranch, and showing up his brother, who is woefully irresponsible. But in the end, he realizes his true motivation was to prove his worth to his parents, to show that he was as valuable a person to them, to himself, and in general, as his brother is/was.

    • Charlotte, it’ll be a treat for readers to see Holt’s journey from the initial goal of saving the ranch — which of course sounds to him like the only possible reason for his quest — to realizing there’s more behind that desire than JUST saving the ranch.

      And I’ll bet they figure it out long before he does, which makes the book all the more entertaining: “I know something he doesn’t know yet.” 🙂

  • Hi Laurie, so glad to see you here. Your blog today gave me a refresher on character motivation. But it also made my own motivation to put my stories out into the BIG world by becoming a successful self-publisher. Thank you.

  • Sorry, in my haste, I left out a very important word. That is stronger and refers to my personal motivation as a writer.

  • Magda

    Hi Laurie,

    Great post with new examples that discuss the GMC subject (you can never have enough of those…) In my story my heroine was wronged financially and is now investigating frauds. Her motive is justice. My hero works in finance, and if he seals a new deal, he will become partner at his firm, which is his motivation. Internal motivation is the need for control and wanting more from his life, which becoming partner won’t provide him with (he doesn’t know that!).


    • Magda, what a great statement — “wanting more from his life, which becoming partner won’t provide him with (he doesn’t know that!)” is a perfect summary of how a character’s journey unfolds.

      The fact that YOU know his motivation and HE doesn’t gives you all kinds of opportunity to put him in situations (or actually, to let him put himself in situations) prompted by his desire, which wind up making things even worse. And that’s such a great for the readers to watch. 🙂

  • The protagonists in my current project are both motivated by the need to restore order, after watching the world around them turn to badness. She’s inherently a sort of guardian/protector personality, and this is where she lives, full of people she knows, so her goal is to keep everybody safe. His primary goal is finding a place to belong, but here it manifests as the desire to locate his two missing friends, and a growing fear/guilt that he may be responsible for the horrible things that are happening.

    • Michael, I like how clearly you’ve distinguished their goals of “restoring order” from their motivations of “safety” and “belonging” — and how logically those motivations LEAD to their goals.

      This is a great illustration of the process in reverse, because readers generally see the goal before they see the motivation without having any idea what the writer went through to make it plausible. Then, as they watch the story unfold, they begin to get clues which indicate what’s driving the characters…and discovering that is as much fun as discovering what the characters do about it.

  • My character is having to deal with an evil she thought was dead. The evil one takes someone and hides them. She must find them. She has been through this before, but now that she is older, the games has changed. Does she save this person or does this person die?

    • Lynda, in a situation like that, it’s not quite as important WHAT the character’s motivation is — presumably she wants to save her loved one before they die, and that kind of action-adventure can be enormously exciting with or without any grow-learn-change arc on the part of the heroine.

      Same as in a James Bond-type movie…if James DOES have some motivation other than “God save the Queen” that’s fine, but it isn’t really necessary for us to enjoy the show!

  • Hi Laurie! This is such a great summary of motivation and why it WORKS to make a story leap off the page. In the story I just read the hero was motivated by success and the heroine by career, and both were working to rebuild after setbacks.

    • Laurel, trust a writer who’s experienced with motivation to analyze so neatly what drove that hero and heroine.

      The fact that they’re both working to rebuild after setbacks is cool, because presumably they each suffered a setback in the area that matters most to them, but while they might be well able to see what’s missing from the other one’s life it’s a lot harder for them to see what’s missing from their own.

  • Laurie, feeling grateful for where you live because almost everyone else I know doesn’t get up for quite a while AFTER the blog goes live 🙂

    Motivation is still my biggest character-building problem. I can think of their goals but why they want what they want is tough for me. I’m not a goal driven person, so understanding what pushing people forward is like pulling teeth. I keep hearing, “that’s not feasible,” or “nobody would believe that motivation,” and on and on. There is definitely a trick to building motivation into our characters.

    • Carol, don’t you love having friends who might be hard to connect with “live” but easy to enjoy online?

      And the fact that determining why people want things is tough for you indicates that you’re probably very good at living in the here-and-now, appreciating what IS in the moment rather than analyzing the reason behind everything. Which is a gift in and of itself, and one I appreciate because I hardly EVER live in the joy of the moment!

  • I *cannot* recommend Laurie’s Plotting via Motivation course enough. I had such a breakthrough with my manuscript; and the course that followed it (From Plot to Finish) was so perfect that I actually wrote what would be a synopsis for the book that I could write from. I’d never done that before–not really–and the way she broke it out and the homework assignments (while some were challenging!) made the way it finally fit together at the end seem SO EASY. I remember how amazed I was when I read to the end and I was all, “Holy cow, I finished plotting my story.” Only I used a different word than cow that cannot be used here.

    And I’m totally tossing my hat in the ring even if I already took this class. I think this is the sort of class you can learn new things each time you take it. I felt like I learned something new just reading this blog, even though I’ve read a ton of blogs about character’s motivation AND taken Laurie’s class.

    My hero I’m writing is motivated by a need to prove himself to his family and himself. If the only way he can earn acceptance/respect is by being an ACTION alpha hero rather than a scholarly, thoughtful and beta person, then he’ll do it. (And yes, Laurie, I’m still working on the same book. But really…I’ve got this!)

    • Fran, I remember loving Brody in your previous book — it’s nice to see he’s enjoying some more action!

      And your observation about “learn new things each time” is wonderful; I’m always delighted when people say that. Otherwise I’d never get to see writers (AND characters) I’ve come to enjoy in my mailbox more than once. 🙂

  • Laurie, you have my undying gratitude for everything I’ve learned from your workshops over the years. I recommend them every chance I get — not only because they’re tremendously helpful, but also because they’re so much fun! I’ve never ceased to be amazed at your ability to teach through laughter. IMO, laughter should be a larger part of life than it sometimes is.

    Thought you might want to know I’m still rebellious and a troublemaker (I take a great deal of pride in both of those traits 😉 ), but thanks in part to your workshops, a couple of my stories won big awards in 2015. Can’t ask for a better return on investment than that! (Okay — a million dollars would be nice, but I’ll take what I can get. 😉 )

    • Kathleen, why am I not surprised to hear that you’re still a rebellious troublemaker? Much less that your stories are winning awards?

      Maybe that’s because you’re never afraid to include laughter in your books — even when things are going horribly wrong for the characters and readers are wondering “good heavens, how will this ever get solved?” there’s always a touch of relief that comes at the most unexpected moments!

  • Calli, the protagonist in my novel The Immortals is motivated by her fear of abandonment. Her younger brother died when she was 10-years-old, then, later in her life her husband leaves to go fight in the Iraq war. She struggles to figure out where she fits in, sometimes stumbling and getting in her own way.

    • Tori, it’s fascinating to imagine all the ways in which a character who (justifiably) fears abandonment might get in trouble solely from that driving desire to NOT be left behind.

      It sounds like even if she’s aware of this desire right from the start, which would be totally plausible, she still doesn’t know how to move past that fear…so there’s the journey we’ll be rooting for her to make as the book progresses. Here’s hoping Calli makes it through.

  • Great post Laurie, I always take away an AHA moment from your lessons. This one is “Our main characters need to be driven by something.” One line, yet powerful!
    In my WIP I have a man who makes a mistake and ends the life of a stranger and the woman he’s always cared for. He becomes an angel in transition. God gives him a chance to make reparation by helping those he left behind. His goal is to correct his wrongs, but is complicated by his anger at the Lord for making this happen. So his motivation is to save his soul by saving those of his friends.

    • Jacquie, what a fabulous challenge you’ve set up for your character…or actually, what readers will take away is “what a fabulous challenge this guy set up for himself,” because he’s going to sound totally plausible.

      I especially like the combination of nobility and selfishness in his desire to save himself by saving friends, which is both SO human and angelic. This is going to be a great read!

  • Fran, I remember loving Brody in your previous book — it’s nice to see he’s enjoying some more action!

    And your observation about “learn new things each time” is wonderful; I’m always delighted when people say that. Otherwise I’d never get to see writers (AND characters) I’ve come to enjoy in my mailbox more than once. 🙂

  • Laurie, I just approved 12 comments so you’ll want to start from the top. What a wonderful post. 🙂

  • Cathy B

    This is such a helpful explanation of motivation…thank you! In the story I’m working on, the heroine is motivated by a desire to protect her heart from being broken again. At the same time, she’s motivated by a desire to convince her best friend she’s happy, even if that means pretending to be in a relationship and desperately trying not to fall in love in the process.

    • Cathy, it’s always fun looking at what a character wants and does, then figuring out what kind of motivation is driving ’em to want that. Since it’s a lot easier (when limited by the length of a novel) to follow someone with one deep, underlying desire than with several, let’s think about why this heroine wants to protect her own heart AND show she’s happy.

      Is it a desire to keep things comfortable? Is it a desire to appear not-pitiful? Is it a desire to succeed at whatever she undertakes? All perfectly plausible motivations…and all very different characters, which is what makes this so intriguing to figure out.

  • Deborah


  • Laurie, the motivation part gets more difficult with each book now. I know it needs to come organically from the characters and their life backgrounds and goals, but I seem to struggle more than I used to. Love your post. You always have such good information.

    • Roz, with all your experience in creating well-motivated characters — what’s it been, five dozen books? — it’s no wonder you’re finding it harder now. Writers with just 5 or 10 books, like me (and probably a lot of other people reading), can’t imagine coming up with that many GMCs year in and year out.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone would ever know it’s gotten more difficult when reading your books…you’re still doing a fabulous job.

  • Great post, Laurie! As a veteran of PvM I’m a huge fan of the technique. Understanding the key motivation that drives a character and how it feeds into his/her behaviours and reactions is like having a Magic Key that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for plot and character development. It’s truly enlightening!

  • Great post, Laurie. My heroine is motivated to stay on the ranch and one day become the manager. She is bogged down with the belief that her fiance’s death was her fault. Until she forgives herself, she is unable to trust her own judgement, so she agrees the plans her family proposes. Part of her character arc is to see that until she can make decisions on her own, her father will never view her as a capable ranch manager.

    • Jackie, even without knowing this is set in Hawaii it sounds like a cool story — I’d like her character development just as much if she were living in Arizona two miles from my house.

      But the setting is frosting on the cake. Er, pineapple-macadamia frosting. 🙂

  • Oops, lunch break is over — coming back with replies for Ange, Carol, Deborah, Laurel, Linda, Roz and anyone else who posts before I check in next!

  • Patti G.

    Laurie, thanks for another informative post. It’s a mini refresher for the Plotting via Motivation classes I took last year. Those classes really helped me understand what drives my main characters forward, helped improve pacing and overall story structure. You really do have a knack for teaching.

  • Hi Laurie! CPR from the Challenging Couples in Love class here. 🙂

    In my MS, Elizabeth’s external motivation is to escape the physical control of the villain. Pretty straightforward.
    However, what she desires even more than being physically free, is to be mentally free of her doubts about herself. So, her internal motivation is overcoming fear of self.

    (This creates conflict because, in order to get over her fear, she has to face the villain she’s running from. The internal motivation is pitted against the external motivation.)

    • CPR, I love your picture — that’s perfect. 🙂

      And the fact that Elizabeth is striving for freedom on both the internal and external level will make the story far more rich. I’m always impressed by parallels like that, and feel relieved knowing Elizabeth IS very likely to make it.

  • This is a great post. In my current WIP I know what’s motivating my character but I don’t think I’ve put in enough work to make that motivation shine through. 18 year old Sam has discovered his deceased father – his hero – has a child with another woman and he’s on a mission to find out the truth – as long as the truth is what he wants it to be.

    Hm. Just writing that has made me realise that I’m not as clear on Sam’s motivation as I should be. Back to work.

    • Wendy, you’re in a great position to drill down deeper regarding Sam’s motivation — good for you on spotting that NOW rather than after the story’s already finished.

      Once you know the “why,” it’ll be easy to go back and reveal it throughout the book, and readers will enjoy making that discovery all while Sam is on his own mission. Which you described beautifully; “find out the truth — as long as the truth is what he wants it to be” is a fabulous phrase!

  • lesann415

    Laurie, plot via motivation changed the way I write. I have six books published with two of those bestsellers. But they took me forever to write, and this class, encapsulated by this blog post, was the change. I can write faster, knowing the motivation of my main characters. Thank you.

    And BTW my latest character is motivated by excellence, which is going to cause him all sorts of grief. Isn’t that going to be fun?

    Hugs and thanks again,
    Leslie Ann aka L.A. Sartor

    • L.A., I’m delighted you’re still writing faster after last March’s class — it’s nice to know when a new tool has become permanently useful!

      And you’re SO right about the fun of your hero’s desire for excellence causing him all kinds of grief…after all, isn’t that what we’re reading books to enjoy? 🙂

  • Great post, Laurie! You have met my protag (Cranny) in class, but after taking your classes I continued subjecting him to increasingly greater/deeper scrutiny, and he’s now a walking bundle of contradictions all of which set up loads of internal conflict for him. For instance, he loves his mother (don’t we all?), but he hates her for her indifference to her children; he has unconventional hobbies for a man of his status, but he is a conformist; he’s bound by duty, but envies his siblings the freedoms they enjoy; he must wed, but doesn’t believe in love; he appreciates beauty in all things, but doesn’t trust women – beautiful or otherwise; he loathes his dead father, but he’s obeyed his father’s edicts and conformed to father’s ideal of the perfect duke; he’s part of a supportive, close-knit group of friends, but feels very alone; he’s kind to others including those of lower social classes, but hard on himself; and the list goes on. Until he’s forced by circumstances to deal with the dreaded Lucy who almost killed him a dozen years earlier, he’s never had to fight for anything or work to achieve a goal. But grown-up Lucy challenges his values and beliefs, throws his daily life into chaos, and forces him to make choices that aren’t always easy and which flout the social mores of their time, and in the process makes him – a respected duke – feel like a nobody. Throw in a villain who is also a bundle of contradictions, a murder or two tied to a traitor the Home Office identifies as Lucy, and Cranny ends up being driven by various layers of honor – all of which boil down, in the end, to finding the courage to be true to who he is as a man at his core, rather than the superficial persona of a duke. So, your teaching lives on, dear lady! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Kalinya, it’s SO great to see you digging down through all those layers of contradiction to what Cranny needs most…something he might never acknowledge he needs, but we (and possibly Lucy) will recognize it in plenty of time to enjoy watching the transformation.

      It’ll be fun seeing how all those internal conflicts force HIM to dig deeper, and how staunchly he’ll resist…

  • The main character in my WIP is motivated by a need for redemption. Being raised by an alcoholic mother who verbally abused her, she believes she is unlovable and “bad,” just as her mother always said she was. When she gets involved in the occult and draws the attention of a demon, she feels that what her mother said about her has been confirmed. In a search for personal redemption, she sets out to defeat the demon and in the process comes to believe that she is worth saving after all.

    • Jori, I’m always struck by “redemption” as a driving desire — it makes perfect sense, and yet it doesn’t seem to get used very often. Which’ll be great for your book, because readers seeking redemption stories will flock to it.

      And this is a terrific combination of internal conflict (“how can someone as bad as I am succeed?”) and external conflict — hello? defeating a demon here!

  • carrienichols

    My hero wants a stepmother for his daughter. He’s in law enforcement so he worries about what would become of her if something should happen to him. But since he’s been burned by love in the past he’s hoping to avoid that part of it. Ha! Fat chance of that since I write romance. 🙂

    • Carrie, I love your “fat chance of that” — romance readers will be VERY glad that’s what you’re doing!

      Plus, you’ve gotta love a hero who wants his daughter to be loved, without actually being willing to let it go the whole way and involve HIM loving again. On paper he seems pretty clueless, but in his own heart (which is all that really counts) it makes perfect sense. So we’ll have all kinds of fun watching him graaaaaaadually change.

  • My heroine, Maggie, lost custody of her children a few years ago when she nearly killed them with negligence (she’s an alcoholic and nearly burned her house down when she fell asleep with a cigarette in her mouth.) She now lives on the streets, and initially, her motivation is to keep that memory squashed while she survives. She stumbles upon human trafficking activity, which forces her to emerge from her alcoholic cocoon.
    So her motivation then changes from surviving to helping some young women escape, and her inner motivation to forget morphs into acceptance of those consequences.

    So am I on the right track? I’ve been wrestling with this for a while, and I’m worried I’m missing something.

    I know GMC but I have never followed through–I’m kind of a chicken about my writing. *sigh*

    • Stacy, no one with a blog like yours has any reason to be kind of a chicken about writing!

      For Maggie, try looking at what she thinks, way deep down, she needs in order to be okay with herself. Food-clothing-shelter are external, getting her children back and saving the young women are external (although laudable), but if she could wave a magic wand and give herself any personality trait she wants, what would she pick?

      • Personality trait…. Thank you for that question!

        She’d like to be less selfish, less self-involved. She’s aware that she is, and she knows it’s ugly.

        She almost doesn’t get involved with the trafficking but the bad guys are really interfering with her living situation. Twice they’ve dumped bodies. It’s bad for peace and quiet (when the police get involved) and it attracts roaches.

        I don’t think she wants to get her children back (she hasn’t told me so, anyway.) She just doesn’t want to remember that part of her life or what she did.

        Gosh, that was helpful. Thank you.

        Thanks for peeking at my blog. 🙂

  • Janet Kerr

    My main character is motivated by the need to overcome the painful memories of the loss of her child & learn to trust herself again.

    • Jan, this is a compelling short-term need — and by short-term, I’m thinking a mission that could easily take a few years. Or even longer if she doesn’t REALIZE she needs to overcome the memories; she might very well feel differently until something forces her to see what’s going on.

      When you think about what motivates her, also take into consideration the kind of person she was before losing her child. That event changed her, of course, but it might not have changed her essential core. Which’ll be something interesting for her to find out…

  • Great article Laurie. My main character is motivated to change her life (work less, date more) but when her blind date is the man making her working life h*ll. She could bolt, but she has promised her best friend she’d try – so she must stick it out. But can she survive and evening with him? I sure hope so, cause if not, I have no story 😉

    • Janna, it’ll be so cool to see why “keeping a promise to her friend” outweighs her instinct to “flee the man who makes her working life h*ll.” Right there is a clue to her motivation — it looks like she values something (integrity? friendship? loyalty? more than her own comfort or convenience or enjoyment.

      It’s questions like that which’ll help you nail down what enables her to survive the evening with him…AND whatever comes next!

  • Hey there! Great article. For my character Liam, his driving force comes in many forms, some positive and some negative. But right now, his main driving force is anger. It is what keeps him going but eventually that anger will burn out and he has to figure what is left when the anger is gone.

    • Annie, I’m glad you liked the article — thank you!

      It sounds like Liam is in for a tremendous challenge, figuring out what can keep him going if he’s been relying on anger to do the job all these years. HE won’t know yet, but YOU will, what kept him going in the past…what comes to the surface during occasional moments when the anger is subdued…and that might very well be a clue.

  • Hi Laurie,
    Great post as usual, and one I learned from…
    The female main character in my story is so motivated by an intense desire to find her longtime missing parents, she willing to risk her life by running toward waiting danger.
    Can’t wait for class to start!

    • Elaine, it sounds like you’ve got a very exciting story in the works — and your heroine’s desire for family / comfort / truth / security / justice / whatever finding her parents means to her will be a nice motivation.

      Especially because that desire will compel her to do OTHER things which may or may not assist in the mission at hand. 🙂 But if this is the idea you’ll be developing in class, don’t pursue that thought until next month.

  • I have GOT to take this class! Friends of mine who’ve taken it raved. I read a lot of mystery, cozy and a bit more hard core. I also write cozies, and the main motive in most cases is the need to see justice done. And/or keep a loved one from being arrested for the crime. My main character’s driving force is production – getting things done to the best of her ability. Her initial motivation in the first book was to solve a problem and get back to work. Her motivation becomes keeping a loved one from being arrested, but her whole perspective about family also changes in the course of the first book.

    Thanks for an amazing post, and for your fabulous classes!

    Nancy Haddock

    • Nancy, how nice to hear that your friends have raved about the class…tell them I admire their taste!

      The desire for justice is a perfectly good motivation, just like James Bond with “God Save The Queen,” and it can be enough to explain why characters in a mystery do what they do. But it sounds like you’re going beyond that with the main character shifting her perspective about family, because that shows there’s more to her than JUST pursuing justice — which makes for an even better book.

  • I’ve noticed when a story isn’t working it is usually due to the lack of character motivation. A plot arc can strike me in the middle of the night but I have to think on the character motivation quite a bit. Your blog post was the perfect refresher!

    In my current WIP my wolf shifter is motivated to find a new pack after being disowned. He is desperate for a place to belong, but he doesn’t know if any of the other packs will adopt him. He has very low self-worth due to his previous pack.

    • Shiloh, I’m already feeling heartbroken for your wolf shifter — poor guy! And you identified his motivation beautifully as the desire for belonging; that’s what fuels his story goal of finding a new pack.

      Knowing that what drives him is the craving to belong reveals so much about his personality…and it offers plenty of opportunities to show how that desire will get him into trouble as the story heats up.

  • Hi Laurie,

    Interesting article which brings up a good point. I’ve mostly been focused on the whole story and the plot but I haven’t really stopped to think about what motivates both my main characters. I guess the hero in my next book is motivated by hope- he wants to feel whole again with someone so he keeps coming back to the heroine with the hope that one day they will be more then friends.

    • D.Anne, it makes sense to focus on the whole story and the plot — plenty of stories get written just fine with no attention to motivation.

      But when you DO know the characters’ motivation, it makes them into deeper, richer people. Which of course makes your story that much deeper and…yeah, you get the idea. 🙂

  • Robin Kramme

    Great post and great reminders. Characters who act “out of character” take readers out of the story! Understanding motivation is key to writing compelling, engaging and believable characters.


    With so many people posting, I hated to give away just one free registration to “Plotting Via Motivation” at WriterUniv dot com — so when Writers In The Storm does their prize drawing on Monday, two people will be winners.

    Laurie, calling it a night after 50 comments but I’ll check back for more during the weekend…thanks, everybody who’s already posted 🙂

  • Alison Hentges

    Great article Laurie (and picture of you!). GMC. You can, maybe, write a story without it, but almost no one will want to finish it. Taking your searching for cancer cure, it can become the plot of a store when the main character has a strong motivation to find a cure. Say a wife, husband, any loved one is dying of that particular cancer. The motivation is the main character’s love for another and that love propels the search.

    Or being bitten by a snake. Let’s make it poisonous and the incident occurs in a desert far from medical help. The motivation is survival. The character must do something to get a cure, the plot and goal twined together Or maybe the character wants to die, but a loved one wants the character to live. Now one character is motivated by the need/desire to die. The other character is motivated by the need to save the dying character. And no medical near by.

    Anyway, this is fun to play with and shows how any situation can have motivation to achieve a specific goal. Fun!

    Thanks for insight

    Alison Hentges

    • Alison, it’s so cool what you did with those examples — already I’m thinking “ooh, yeah, what’s the anti-death character gonna DO about the snake-bitten character?”

      Because it’s hard to get a better conflict, in a relationship story, than one that comes from characters with not just opposing goals but also opposing motivations. As you say, fun!

  • Hi Laurie, I have to say when I took this class (years ago) I absolutely loved it and it had me looking at my characters and what makes them tick in a whole new way. This is a class I would highly recommend to writers and even would take it again to work through a new plot.

    • Colleen, it’s wonderful hearing when the class makes a difference to writers — I’m glad it did for you.

      And you’re right in thinking it’s handy as a “repeat for new plot;” I’m amazed at how many veterans come back year after year. Mostly because there’s no way I’d EVER manage to write a book a year. 🙂

  • Laurie, you already know my story so well 😉 This GMC article is an insta-save to my craft building notebook.

  • Great post and timely too. I have been having difficulty with one of the characters in a novel. In parts the heroines actions didn’t seem to gel. I had to dig a little deeper into her motivation and guess what? I was trying to force her out of character. I had my author fingerprints all over it. Now I am rewriting a couple scenes and letting the character act in a way more suitable to her style and needs.

    • Roslyn, what a great way of describing the “forcing a character out of character” process — the image of having your author fingerprints all over it is wonderful.

      Good for you on recognizing the problem, and giving the character back her own style. I hope she appreciates it…and feel very sure your readers will.

  • Laurie, I’m a day late and I hurried to my computer so I could keep my promise but, golly, you don’t need me :-).

    But here’s my character from my current WIP. The youngest of four children, she was surrounded by helicopter “parenting” and frequently rebelled, which got her in trouble. All she really wants is to be a good girl, but somehow her drive for independence frequently gets her in big trouble. When her college boyfriend introduced her to a way to skim money without hurting anyone she follows his lead so she could pay off her college debt and buy a house separate from but near her family. When suddenly she seems to be in possession of something a very crooked and deadly collective wants, her friends and co-worker become the helicopter parents she thought she’d put in their place. Once again her independent nature is getting her in trouble. Only this time the price she’ll pay will be her life. And all she really wants is to be a good girl.

  • Oh, I forgot to say what a great blog this is. I’m going recommend that my own students read it.

  • Janet Ch.

    I’m just about to start working on a romance novel. I think I’ve figured out my hero’s motivation:he’s motivated by the belief that he can never love a child that isn’t his, which comes from the fear that his stepfather rejected him as a child because he’s unlovable. Now all I need is a positive external goal that stems from this motivation.

    • Janet, it’s clear this hero doesn’t believe he can love a stepchild because he feels unlovable. How does that affect him in everyday life? Does he crave acceptance from friends / co-workers / lovers? Does he focus on career success rather than relationships? Does he yearn for children of his own to love with all his heart?

      Any of those would be completely plausible scenarios, but you can see how each would make him a different type of character. Once you’ve chosen that, it’ll be a lot easier to choose his positive external goal!

  • Janet Ch.

    Thank you, Laurie, that’s a great help. 🙂 (I always find this stage of planning a novel the hardest part.)

  • Jane Bigelow

    A character in the novel I’m writing now is motivated by a desire to escape being executed for murder. She acted in self-defense, but who at Versailles is going to believe her?

    • Jane, it’s hard to imagine a stronger desire than saving oneself from death! But assuming she achieves that goal, what’s going to motivate her to get up the next morning and do something other than gaze at the grass?

      Whatever it is, THAT’s her driving motivation…which will underlie even her struggle to escape execution, although she might not spend a whole lot of time thinking about it during the process. Knowing that desire, though, whatever it is, will make her an even more realistic character.

      • Jane Bigelow

        You’re quite right, of course. My problem is that she doesn’t really know yet. Right now she thinks her driving force (beyond simple survival) is being a good, dutiful wife to her husband and repairing the fortunes of her family. She doesn’t know yet that her husband wanted her to have an affair with his friend, thus relieving him of the responsibility of siring an heir. Then there are things about her family that she doesn’t know yet. I’m not usually much of a plotter, but I think this one may have to be planned a bit more than usual.

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Thank you so much for this insight! I have shared it generously. The motivation for my present protagonist is that she loves children, obsessively. She loves mothering children. Only they are the wrong children. She longs for her own children who tragically died in a fire.

    • Victoria, I’m delighted you shared the insight generously — that’s the best way to go!

      And it’s easy to see how your current protagonist’s motivation isn’t changed by circumstances, which is good. Before and after the tragic fire, her driving force was to love children…so her response to the loss of her own makes perfect sense. Even if she’s a “villain” keeping babies who aren’t her own, she’ll be very easy to understand.

      • Victoria Marie Lees

        Thank you for this, Laurie. My protagonist doesn’t think she is doing any thing wrong. These children need a mother. Her employer works all the time. She lost her kids. In her mind, she can raise the children as her own. Until she can’t. Thanks again for your insight.

  • Hi Laurie, look forward to hearing you at Tucson festival of books. A character I am writing is motivated by yearning to conform and get approval from her granfather, and wishing there was a path that incorporated traditions w8th modern behaviors she has adopted.

    • Laura, it’s wonderful you’ll be at TFoB — I’ll look forward to seeing you there.

      And if you’re attending my Plotting Via Motivation session, which is either at 10am or 2:30pm Saturday (I forget which program is when), a lot of what you hear will sound familiar after having read this blog. 🙂

  • Congratulations to our two class winners – Lyn Brittan and Janet Kerr! Laurie has your email addresses and will be contacting you.

  • […] Announcement: The two class winners from Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s Friday post are Lyn Brittan and Janet Kerr. Please see the comments section in the post for […]

  • Great, informative post! It got me thinking but most of my characters do have internal motivation, but some need work. In my dark fantasy series I’m working on the main character is motivated by her desire to redeem herself – the main make character is the same, though their reasons for feeling they need redeeming see vastly different.
    Honestly, I think unmotivation could work as motivation. They just need this adventure over so they can get back to lazying about the garden..

  • The main character in my WIP is motivated by the desire to be the best public relations professional in her firm. To her that means representing her clients’ interests while not committing personally to anyone or anything. Conflict arises when she learns her client is taking advantage of employees who cannot speak for themselves and when she becomes personally attached to a child in danger.

  • […] What is Your Character’s Driving Force? […]

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