February 26th, 2021

Why Character Motivation Matters

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

We all know your main character can’t suddenly stand up and dance around the room without having SOME motivation for doing that. Maybe a red laser-dot just revealed there’s an assassin trying to get a clean shot through the window, or maybe somebody just announced “you inherited three billion dollars” or their favorite song just came on the radio. Without any motivation or inciting incident, the sudden dancing is gonna look plain weird.

We know, too, this same character can’t accept a job in Antarctica without some motivation for doing that. Maybe it’s a chance to work with an old love who’s indicated an interest in picking up where they left off, or maybe the pay will cover a new roof for poor Grandma’s house, or perhaps there’s a rare breed of penguin expected to appear and being the first to see it would rejuvenate a faltering career.

Motivation vs. Goals

It’s pretty easy to come up with a motivation for whatever gets your character started on the action of the story. But technically, avoiding an assassin or reconnecting with an old love or spotting the amazing penguin isn’t a motivation. It’s an understandable desire, but it’s not a motivation.

It’s a goal.

”Fine,” you say. ”But that’s all just semantics.”

It could be, sure. Or it could be the difference between a character who goes through predictable actions without ever really coming alive on the page, and one who makes readers feel like this character is so fully, vividly real that they’d recognize ‘em in an instant if they met each other on the street.

(Or a ranch, a windswept moor, a vintage boutique, a bustling emergency room, or wherever this character tends to be seen.)

Why do we care about motivation?

Motivation is what makes this character the person they are.

It also makes ‘em the person they’ve been long before the story ever began, and the person they’ll be long after it concludes.

That’s not to say their motivation must remain consistent from beginning to end. It certainly CAN, and still deliver your readers a truly compelling character all the way through the story and beyond, but it doesn’t HAVE to.

Think about someone who wants something.

It might be a character in a book you’re immersed in right now. It might be someone you live or work with. Heck, make it easy – think about yourself and something YOU want!

It doesn’t matter whether you choose a tangible goal like “a new phone” or “a trip to Paris” or something loftier like “a cure for Covid” or “the happiness of my children.” No matter how lofty the goal might be, it’s still driven by a motivation.

How to choose the right motivation?

We don’t always know, and neither do our characters, what motivation lies behind a goal. I might want a new phone to make life more convenient, or to have more room for photos of loved ones, or to impress my co-workers, or to quit spending so much on repair hacks, without ever thinking about why that particular outcome matters to me.

The same is true if I want to cure Covid. Saving the world is an understandable desire, and there are all kinds of possible motivations:

• Someone might want the acclaim that comes from discovering a cure.

• Someone might want the recovery of their beloved father who makes life easier for them.

• Someone might want the freedom of once again being able to go anywhere anytime with anybody who looks interesting.

• Someone might want the world to be a healthier, happier place.

Which of those will be the most interesting character?

Any one of the above would work, except the last.

Wanting the world to be a healthier, happier place is pretty bland. It’s pretty universal. It doesn’t really TELL us anything about this person.

Whereas a character who wants acclamation, who wants Dad to smooth things out, who wants to explore every avenue they can find, is almost certainly going to be less bland. More interesting.

More the kind of person we’d like to read about.

So does that mean your characters should never have truly good, noble reasons for doing what they’re doing?

We’ll get into that more next month during “Plotting Via Motivation,” which goes into considerably more detail on how to use motivation to make your book shine. And because I always give a free-class prize to someone who leaves a comment whenever a blog gets 25 or more commenters (hmm, is that a word?)...

Let me ask you a question:

What’s a book you remember enjoying, and what did the main character want?

Please share it with out down in the comments. You don’t need to say WHY they wanted it, just WHAT they wanted. That’ll be a good way of showing how many different kinds of motivation can lie behind just about any desire…which is one more reason books are so fascinating to read!

And, yes, write. 🙂

Laurie

(Who should mention that as of February 22 the class is on a wait-list basis but it can’t hurt to email WriterUniv.com@gmail.com if you’re interested.)

* * * * * *

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell has taught Plotting Via Motivation for WriterUniv.com every spring for the past decade, with some authors taking it annually to plot their next story and others saving the “Big Fabulous Worksheets” to use on their own for subsequent books. She still loves getting Amazon shipments of novels she watched taking shape during the class and reading them not as a coach but a fan.

50 responses to “Why Character Motivation Matters”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    The first novel that came to mind when I read your question was "Code Name: Verity" by Elizabeth Wein, a YA set in WWII. The main character has the goal to stay alive but her real motivation is both extremely personal (save her best friend's life) and much more universal (defeat the Nazis). We are rooting for her through the whole book, and I have absolutely never forgotten that character.

  2. Janet Chamberlain says:

    In Marion Lennox's Harlequin Romance novel, Christmas At The Castle, the heroine and her gran have only fifty pounds between them. When the heroine sees a temporary cook/ housekeeper job advertised at the local castle she wants the earl to employ them both in a job share. So bascically she wants a job for her and her gran.

  3. In my new book, Twice a Daughter, which launches in May, I use my mom's dog to convey her unspoken displeasure about my announcement "I am trying to find my birth mother." A character's interaction with objects and animals is a great way to show motivation and internal thoughts without overtly just saying it in the narrative.

    • Julie, congratulations on your upcoming launch! And, boy, a daughter wanting to find her birth mother and a mother who isn't pleased about it is a wonderfully dramatic setup...I'm hoping the real-life version has a happy ending.

  4. A 134-page novella published back in 1996, The Falconer by Elaine Clark McCarthy, is a stunning love story that shows how ordinary lives can be transformed by passion. India Blake, 37, married, and suffering inoperable cancer, forms a list of attainable/doable things she wants to do before she dies. One of them is learn to fly falcons. And so she meets master falconer Rhodri MacNeal with whom she finds a passion she's never known in life; and in death, finds the completeness and true freedom she'd never found in life. Faced with her own mortality, India realizes she has missed much in life (childhood lost while nursing her alcoholic mother who eventually died of cancer; and married to a philandering husband who's waiting for her to die so he can openly see his mistress). So she pursues 'life', and in doing so, is taken on a voyage of self-discovery by Rhodri.

    Honestly, I read this book on a Sydney commuter bus in peak hour going to work, and I bawled all the way to work. More than one commuter wanted the name of the book, wrote it down, etc - even a guy who said his wife loved a good story. It's stuck with me for a quarter of a century and still sits on my keeper shelf.

    She wanted to live before she died. And oh how she lived!

  5. lrtrovi says:

    Just finished "Searching for Sylvie Lee" by Jean Kwok. The main character was looking for her beloved older sister who went missing, but in reality she was motivated by her need to step up, take action for a change, and be seen in her family. (my take-away)

    Thanks for your post. I'm always struggling to dig down past the surface goal to the real driving force for characters.

  6. Willow Croft says:

    “Might I," quavered Mary, "might I have a bit of earth?” 🙂

  7. Amanda Pumilia says:

    I'm re-reading "Prince Charming" by Julie Garwood and the heroine wanted to protect her toddler nieces from her uncle (so she ends up marrying a stranger and moving out the wilderness, but that's a while other question, haha). But, it's got me remembering Plotting via Motivation and thinking of the underlying motivation behind it. It's pretty strong. No wonder I love the book!

    • Amanda, for years my critique partner raved about Julie Garwood and since at the time I was focused solely on contemporary while she was all historical so I didn't read her. Then once I started, I realized why my cp loved her so much -- now I'm sorry I didn't come across THAT book!

  8. Michael Mock says:

    I'm not sure the issue is so much with your character having a good, noble reason for doing what they're doing; I think the real problem is when the motivation is too abstract. "I want to make life better for everyone" is a perfectly reasonable desire and could certainly serve as a general motivation, but it's bland because it's abstract. "I want to make life better for everyone because I'm tired of my friends and family suffering economically" is better, but "I have spent my whole life trying to make employment laws more fair so my friends and family won't suffer so much economically, and I'll be &*^$ed if I'm going to let the bank repossess my uncle's home on a pretext!" gives us something much more solid and concrete and personal, even if it's rooted in a more general, abstract nobility.

    The one I've been obsessing over lately (I just re-read the series again) is The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, which... if you haven't read them, do. Murderbot (as it calls itself) is a SecUnit: a cybernetic security unit. And if you asked it, in the first book, what its goal was (and it was willing to answer, which it wouldn't be) it would tell you that all it really wanted was to be left alone to watch its media. (It's deeply into one particular soap opera.) Except... it's still pretending to do its job, and when things go completely pear-shaped it steps up to protect the humans on its contract, even at the risk of them discovering that it has hacked the governor module that's supposed to keep it under control. So there's a second goal there: it actually does want to be protecting people, or at least it wants to be protecting its people. And... as the series progresses, it becomes clear (and even Murderbot starts to recognize) that what it really wants is self-determination... and enough time and space to figure out what it actually wants to with its freedom to make choices.

    I'm currently working on a story about a boy who goes off to a school for sorcery (think "Hogwarts For Monsters"). Looking at character goals, this is interesting to me because "learning magic" isn't really his goal at all; he signs up in order to protect his family from the weird things that keep happening around him. He's hoping, in essence, that a school for sorcerers will be better equipped to deal with him, so he won't keep accidentally getting into trouble (and by extension, making trouble for his family in their very small town).

    • Michael, this is why I always enjoyed having you in PVM -- you come up with such great observations about stories I haven't heard about! Although it might've been you who first introduced me (and then my son) to Martha Wells, which deserves a big THANKS from both of us. 🙂

  9. Millie Hast says:

    Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is an easy one, but it was the first book to jump into my mind. Scarlet O’Hara wanted to never be hungry again.

    • Millie, that's sure a vivid want, isn't it? And you're right that not being hungry is about as primal a goal as anyone can have -- things like Independence and True Love and Validation and Success, no matter how appealing, lose some of their luster when compared to Having Enough Food.

      • Millie Hast says:

        Laurie, thanks for your comment. I’m finding it hard to distinguish between goals and motivations. I guess if never being hungry is a goal, then Scarlet’s motivation is to survive, right? Or am I missing something? Your posts are always very thought-provoking!

  10. Tracey Turner says:

    Hi Laurie
    Can't wait for class to begin.
    My thoughts went to Pride and Prejudice where the supposed goal is marriage however Elizabeth is actually looking for a love match so she'll have a happy marriage. While this brought us a classic romance it also shows how specifics can narrow down the goal and motivation.
    Cheers Tracey

  11. Laurie -- Excellent post! I am in the midst of revising a novel and praying particular attention to the motivation of my protagonist, antagonist and responding characters. Thank you for your most helpful tips. I have passed them along to my Writer's Critique Group.

  12. Jacquolyn McMurray says:

    The book that comes to mind is Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. The book spans the life of a woman who is separated from her family and sent to the leprosy colony on Moloka'i around age 7. She wants to get back home to her family.

  13. Laurie Wood says:

    Taking your Plotting with Motivation class really helped me solidify my hero's motivations for my latest novel, Northern Protector (Heroes of the Tundra Book 2). In Book 1, he was mauled by a polar bear and severely injured, barely escaping death. He's also an RCMP cop. His motivation was multi-pronged: he wanted to return to Churchill, a small town posting but fraught with the possibility of encountering more polar bears, in order to prove to himself that he could confront his PTSD and overcome it, and also the niggling motivation from knowing that his scars on his face and shoulder wouldn't be "show stoppers" up in the far north the way they would be down south if he took a city posting. So, he's trying to not be a coward, while also being a bit cowardly in not wanting to face people's reactions to his now visually scarred face. Unfortunately, my publisher made me take out a lot of the description of his injuries due to the target audience, but I was able to keep in his motivations. In real life, people's motivations are usually a mix of self-serving and altruistic. 🙂

  14. I'm reading Susan Mallery's Painted Moon and the main female character's goal is to have the freedom to create wines. So when she divorces Bel Apres Winery's owner's son, she leaves Bel Apres and goes to another winery to be able to unleash her creativity. But really, her motivation is to feel worthwhile and part of a family - which is why she left Bel Apres in the first place. Her work was not valued there by the winery's owner and she was never going to be given a piece of the winery as the owner's daughter-in-law, so her desire to be a true part of that "family" was never going to happen. Hence, she leaves Bel Apres and strikes out on her own and being pregnant, hopes to fulfill her dream of "family" without Bel Apres' involvement.

  15. In Hometown Hope by Laurel Blount, the hero, Hoyt Bradley, just wants his little girl to talk again. Her first words in three years have to do with saving a bookstore, so he kicks into high gear to make that happen. On the way, he reestablishes his relationship with the bookstore owner who tutored him in high school, and they find their happily ever after. And, yes, of course, the little girl talks a blue streak by the end of the story.

  16. Fran Colley says:

    I think of the Harry Potter series. I think his primary goal and motivation was to protect those close to him from harm--he had a bit of a savior complex. Normally this would be a boring character but he had lost his parents as a baby and didn't have friends for a long time, so protecting them at all costs is understandable. He wanted to belong and be loved...and he really found that at Hogwarts so he'd do anything to protect it.

    • Fran, good call on the distinction between his goal of protecting loved ones and his motivation of belonging/being loved...having been in the class, you remember that question about "what if you can't do both," right? Here it's hard to envision any such situation for Harry, which makes it a great series!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      We LOVED the entire Harry Potter series in this house! And I loved the first two the best because he was so young and so very earnest.

  17. dholcomb1 says:

    *Before We Were Yours* The ultimate goal is for one sister to reunite with her siblings/family.

    I like to write a logline for each story. Those two-three sentences ought to be able to define the story quicker than an elevator pitch.

    Denise

  18. crbwriter says:

    The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek wants *all the things,* but especially to be accepted rather than despised for her skin color.

  19. Vonnie Alto says:

    A favorite book is The Scarlet Pimpernel.Sir Percy wants to save the French from the guillotine.

  20. David Duhr says:

    I recently read Revolver by Evan Schwartz. The protag is a high school kid in the late 70s, and what he wants is to save John Lennon from what the kid envisions as Lennon's impending violent death. He loves Lennon's music, so he wants more of it. And if the reader is also a fan of John Lennon, he/she wants the same thing the character wants.

    It works in part because we know what happened in real life, and so we're curious to see if and how the protag becomes involved in that familiar incident.

    (Doesn't hurt that it's a free book: Concord Free Press.)

  21. Ken says:

    In the Cousins by Karen M McManus three cousins are invited to Gull Cove Island to work for their very rich grandmother.While two of the cousins are not keen on going, they are curious what their parents did to be cut out of the will. The third cousin, really an imposter, goes too. His motivation is revenge. An excellent read with many secrets being exposed.

  22. Thorsten Löwenberg says:

    Character motivation is essential. Comming from a table top storyteller perspective I am astonished how many adventures do not care about the player (protagonists) motivation. They just asume that the characters will plow through all hardships because the are "heroes"

    For shorter stories this might work, but in longer, more epic adventures this crumbles at some point like a house of cards. The protaginists ask themself more and more often why they are suffering like this, and why they are not just going home.

    Always make sure to give your player characters a good motivation for the advenuture or they might run off mid story.

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