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?”
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-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?
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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 Karma, Catching 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 Room, Treble 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.