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