January 25th, 2021

What’s My Motivation?

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

My characters are my children. I create them, nurture them, and help them grow. I also abuse them, annoy them, and torture them. I’m a writer—it’s my job.

If I’ve done my job well, by the end of the story the main character will have gone through the fires of hell and come out the other side a changed, more well-rounded individual. That’s the hope anyway.

But you’ve probably heard it said that for someone to profoundly change, they must want to change, and therein lies the rub. People—including our characters—need a reason to step out of their comfort zone and make deep, lasting changes. As writers it’s our job to push our characters out the door and slam it behind them, giving them no choice but to move forward.

So, how do we accomplish this task? We must answer the question our characters ask every time we try to get them to step up:

“What’s my motivation?”

Creating Change

The catalyst for change can come from an endless number of sources, but they usually fall into one of two basic categories:

  • External motivators - Just as the name implies, external motivators come from the world around our characters. These are factors that are out of their immediate control—things like weather, natural disasters, interference by other characters, or major life changes (divorce, financial ruin, death in the family).
  • Internal motivators. – Psychological needs fall into the category of internal motivators. These are the things that feed our emotions and egos and are fertile ground for planting the seeds of fear and self-doubt, among other things. While these factors are under the individual’s control, they don’t feel like it in the moment.

A Helpful Tool

My favorite way to generate motivation is to consult with our old friend Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow gives us plenty of rocks to throw at our characters. Let’s look at his five levels of need and see how we can use them to create internal and external pressures to force change.

Basic Needs are the external motivators and minimum requirements everyone needs to survive. They make up the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid and are an easy place to start when looking for ways to complicate our character’s lives.

  • Physiological Needs - food, water, warmth, rest –Take away any one of them and you create desperation, a psychological state that can easily push someone to cross a line they might not otherwise cross. Force someone into survival mode and they will lie, cheat, steal, and in some cases, even kill to get what they need.
  • Safety Needs – security, safety – These can be internal or external. It’s not just about locking doors for physical security or to hide from prying eyes, but also about the feeling of security, or lack of it. Sometimes those feelings are rooted deep in the past, giving us scars to pick at and expose weaknesses. The trick here is to expose the old scars without dumping too much backstory and pulling the reader out of the narrative. Weave the details into the action but use them sparingly.

Psychological Needs. Now we get into the tough stuff. Psychological needs are internal motivators—the mental triggers both dreams, and nightmares are made of. Messing around in the psyches of our characters can be a dangerous and disturbing exercise. Bringing truth to the narrative often requires us to face our own demons in order to lead the character through the experience and bring them out whole on the other side.

  • Belongingness and Love Needs – intimate relationships, friends The romantic love angle is obvious, but there are other types of intimate relationships. They may be as simple as needing that one friend you know will listen or as complex as the blending of families after a second marriage. The need to belong can be deeply rooted in the past, like trying to overcome a rejection that shakes you to the core.
  • Esteem Needs – prestige, feelings of accomplishment – This one is ego driven. While your main character might be pushed to change by the need for recognition, I find this a great tool to use when developing the antagonist. Villains are often ego driven, overcompensating for being put down or ignored in the past. This can push someone to try to “prove everyone wrong.”

Self-fulfillment Needs

  • Self-actualization – achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities – As creatives, this is a motivation I feel everyone who writes can connect with. We’ll do just about anything to finish that novel or land our dream agent. We can feed the characters with our own desires to reach the top of our personal mountains, beat our chest, and scream with delight at achieving our goals.

Some Final Thoughts

Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit or make a life altering course correction knows that change doesn’t come easy, so don’t make it easy on your characters either. Maslow is a great place to start when looking for motivation, but don’t stop there. If you do your research, draw on your own experiences, and make the change relatable for your readers, you’ll end up with a more engaging, believable tale.

How do you motivate change in your characters? Do you have any favorite tools to get the job done?

* * * * * *

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Top Image and Pyramid Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

20 responses to “What’s My Motivation?”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Maslow's hierarchy is a good way to organize characters' needs, since—well, characters are people, so thank you! As a former clinician, I can't help adding the same note I would make if one of my students back-in-the-day were applying Maslow's taxonomy to a "real" person: that a person doesn't go in order, from bottom to top, checking each need off before proceeding up the pyramid to fulfill the next one. A person might sacrifice safety for the sake of a relationship, thus abandoning a more "basic" or "essential" need in favor of a "higher" one. Under dire conditions, food and shelter might be the way to achieve self-esteem. And so on ... The needs shift places, interpenetrate, affect one another, and are affected by context. We are complex critters 🙂

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Ooh! Good point. Sometimes we do crazy things for love.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Totally agree, Barbra. If there's one thing you can count on in this world it's that just when you think you have people figured out, they will break pattern. In modern society so many of our basic needs are taken care of that we often become more focused on our wants and see them as needs. Social media is a perfect example/ It often puts self esteem ahead of safety.

    • Sarah Brnjas says:

      Another great point to add to an excellent article. Thanks for sharing this -- definitely will leave me reflecting on it. 🙂

  2. Terry Odell says:

    When I write, I use Deb Dixon's GMC for my characters, and just keep throwing bad stuff at them, and force them to make choices. I've never looked very deep into the whats or whys. Thanks for the analysis. Mist for the grill.

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Also a good tool. I often use Maslow to come up with the bad stuff to throw. At some point the characters have no choice but head down the intended path where no doubt more rocks await.

  3. Ellen Buikema says:

    I hadn't considered Maslow's hierarchy, but will now!
    Typically I consider difficult situations that people might encounter and go from there.
    Thanks for the enlightening post, Bob.

  4. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Bob,
    I enjoyed your description of writers who torture their characters - it's very necessary for writers to do this! I'm currently working on a short story for the NYC Midnight and this helped me dig in deeper and make more compelling motivation for my characters.

    P.S. Thanks for the Maslow rocks to throw!

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    Like Kris, I am doing the NYC Midnight challenge and it's wonderful to have this to combine with the Character Builder tool at OneStop for Writers to flesh out this story. I have to make everything do double-duty because I only have 2,500 words. 🙂

  6. I really like this post, Bob--I've been touting Maslow for years as a great resource for digging down to what really drives your character at their core. Nice, concise overview of the idea--I'll be sharing in my FoxPrint Editorial newsletter!

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Thanks, Tiffany. Maslow is one of the first places I run to when I need to find a way to get a character to bend to my will. Some of them get pretty suborned and won't budge until you paint them into a corner with only one way out.

  7. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    Additional elements that I use is the character archetype-when I decide who my hero really is at his/her core, i can then select the correct motivation more easily. And the other thing is to follow a writers template (e.g. Billy Mernit Romance, Michael Hauge Six stage, Snowflake method, Victor Piniero Screenplay). The template has concrete guidance, at specific points, to prompt you what needs to happen (and why).
    An example might be Three Story Act template:
    "Act 1 - Conflict
    Definition of conflict - The thing that yanks your protagonist out of his ordinary life. Yes, it’s that simple. The term “Inciting Incident” is often used in screenwriting and movie production as well as novel writing, but we chose to call it “conflict” because it’s more specific. This single event does not necessarily need to be tense, dramatic, or a life-or-death situation—the nature of the inciting incident will depend on your genre. However, it does need to force the main character into changing, which then “incites” the act. Without change precipitated by conflict, there is no story." Taken from Three Story Act template within Plottr.com. As a writer I can outline and add beats to my specific choices to see what is working well, based on the prompts I am guided by.

    Additionally, in every business meeting I've ever had my patented answer as to WHY something happens at work is: saving time, saving money, saving resources. It sounds cliche but its totally true. So if I've delegated one of these three things to go awry in my story, I can clearly see...ways to motivate. I'm sure the last part reflects back to Internal and External motivation but as a writer I have to have a motivating crises to be able to tell my characters they have to beat it. (Is that backwards? Should my characters tell me what crises I'll have to write them out of?)

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I look at my notes and I have some craft books to use as guidance. Sometimes, I'll talk it out with a friend. Usually helps.

    denise

    • Eldred Bird says:

      Talking it out is a great way to get where you need to go. I can't tell you how many times my critique group has gotten me through the process.

  9. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Excellent post, Eldred! Thank you so much for this refresher on Character's needs. I've shared the post and will connect with you online! Have a beautiful weekend!

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