by Stefan Emunds
This is the fourth article of the article series The Yin and Yang Relationship Between Psychology and Storytelling. The first article covers reader investment and reader engagement. The second article explains how to create story experiences that feel real to life. The third article shows how to tap your readers' subconsciousness and engage them in your story.
This article dives into characters’ goals, motivations, wants, needs, and objects of desires. It also touches on the difference between sympathy and empathy and why that matters for storytelling.
Writers need to know psychology for four main reasons:
This article is written with the eight writing crafts in mind. The eight writing crafts are:
Note: To avoid confusing readers, the author of these articles avoided the alternation of she and her and he and him. Instead, he uses the nonexclusive she and her to mean writer and reader.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut
I like Kurt’s advises on writing. They are simple and witty and go a long way. But if it comes to wants it’s a bit more complicated than that. Wants don’t exist in a vacuum. Characters also have needs, motivations, goals, and objects of desire.
Let’s have a look at what the difference between motivations, needs, goals, and objects of desire are and how they move stories forward.
Motivations can be emotional, for example, a fear-flight response. Fear is the emotion and flight the motivation. Motivations can also be feely, like the motivation to find someone to love. If you want to know the difference between emotions and feelings, read this article.
You need to give your protagonist and antagonist strong motivations. If the protagonist just wants to get back onto her couch, she won’t embark on a life or sanity-threatening adventure. Strong motivations are love, hate, revenge, and the motivation to win and succeed.
The antagonist needs to have even stronger motivations because you need her to be mean and break rules.
I’m sure you have heard this already: your protagonist needs a wound. Wounds boost empathy and empathy is the main story engager.
The protagonist’s wound gives rise to her motivation. Imagine a woman who was bullied by her mother as a child and suffers from an inferiority complex. The inferiority complex turned her into an approval seeker. Seeking approval is the motivation.
Desires give form to motivations. Hunger prompts the motivation to find food, which turns into the desire to buy a pizza or steal an apple. Looking for someone to love is a motivation, wanting a husband or a child is a desire.
Mind the difference between emotional and feely desires. Emotions want to eat pizza, but feelings want to have dinner at an Italian restaurant. Emotions want sex, feelings want a honeymoon.
It needs to be clear what characters want, because readers need to understand what drives the story. That’s where objects of desires come in.
Motivations are abstract and can’t trigger readers’ imaginations. The show, don’t tell rule applies: Don’t tell readers that a character is greedy, show how she is hoarding cash in the basement (cash is the object of desire).
Objects of desire move your story forward, but they may run out of steam after a chapter or two. To move your story from the inciting incident all the way to the climax, you need something more persistent.
Most of our desires come and go, and we have little control over them. Goals are different. We pursue goals consciously and with intent.
Goals involve decision-making and planning. And we sacrifice for goals. To win a gold medal is a goal. Or to become an accomplished singer. Or to become the president of the United States.
The protagonist pursues the story goal from the inciting incident to the climax. On the way, she needs to overcome all kinds of adversity. To do that she needs an undying motivation and a clear goal.
Needs can be physical or mental, like the need to survive or the need to overcome a flaw.
Needs are usually subconscious. The needs of your story characters belong to your story’s subtext.
If you want to make your story characters more interesting, oppose their motivations with their needs.
Remember the woman who was bullied as a child? Let’s give her a name: Laura. Laura needs to become confident. But she ignores that need. Instead, she wants to make a career. She believes that this will allow her to gain her mother’s respect. And everybody else’s.
In real life, motivations, objects of desire, goals, and needs belong to people. But in stories, they should serve Story Outline and Genre. Let’s see how this plays out in Laura’s case.
As mentioned, Laura suffers from an inferiority complex. In this context, Laura’s mother is the antagonist.
Laura needs to get rid of her inferiority complex. She should do that by going to therapy and developing self-confidence.
Instead, Laura wants to enforce her mother’s respect by becoming a successful television writer. This is Laura’s original goal before the inciting incident. Turns out, Laura’s mother doesn’t think highly of television writers. Laura is frustrated.
One day, a TV host quits her job without warning. Laura replaces the TV host for one show. She does a good job, and the producer offers her the vacant position. This is the inciting incident.
Laura reacts to the inciting incident by formulating the story goal: to become a celebrity TV host. Her mother admires TV hosts, and Laura believes that now she has a real shot at her mother’s approval.
In this case, the inciting incident tempts Laura to go on an adventure. Protagonistic forces dominate and the overall mood is excitement. If antagonistic forces dominated, the inciting incident would disrupt Laura’s life. For instance, she could have lost her job and the story goal would be to find a new one.
Advanced Writer Tip: The protagonist’s motivation and story goal need to be on par. Weak motivations make stories melodramatic. If characters are over-motivated, the story becomes comical. It would be comical if Laura tried to overcome her inferiority complex by becoming a successful babysitter. And it would be melodramatic if Laura got an inferiority complex because she was bullied just once by a stranger.
Her heart set on the story goal, Laura climbs the hierarchy of the TV network and squashes collegial intrigues. But she hits a roadblock on the road to fame. The producer defies her illustrious TV host jobs because she lacks charisma. Her inferiority complex smothers her confidence, which smothers her charisma.
At the story’s midpoint, Laura retreats and faces her inner demon. She realizes that she needs to develop genuine self-confidence. Confidence is the key ability.
The story’s midpoint is an auspicious moment for revealing the protagonist’s wound. It makes the midpoint scene memorable and boosts empathy, which is the root story engager. You can read about all nine story engagers here.
After acquiring the key ability, Laura modifies the story goal. She wants to confront her mother about the childhood bullying and tell her about her success as a TV host.
Laura visits her mother and demands her respect, but her mother just laughs at Laura and lists all of her failures and flaws. Laura realizes that her mother has never loved her and will never respect her, even if she would become a celebrity TV host. This throws Laura into an emotional pit of despair — the all-is-lost moment. Laura considers dropping out.
The all-is-lost moment is a dramatic device. For purely dramatic reasons, the protagonist should fail to vanquish the antagonist with the key ability and experience an all-is-lost moment. This serves as a contrast to the climax. After the all-is-lost moment, the protagonist should take on the antagonist in the climax against all odds.
Laura realizes that her mother has an even deeper inferiority complex than herself and made up for that by bullying Laura as a child. Laura rebounds. She goes through an internal transformation and gains genuine self-confidence.
The climax: She visits her mother a second time, cuts her down to size, drives to work, stomps into the producer’s office, and demands a prime-time TV host job with a charismatic speech.
Here is a picture of Laura’s motivations, objects of desire, goals, and needs:
Laura changed her goal three times. She abandoned her original goal for the story goal and adapted the story goal twice: after the midpoint and after the all-is-lost moment. This does not introduce inconsistency. We can reach a mountain top by taking the road, by climbing or by flying a helicopter.
On a side note, if a story goal is too lofty, you can break down the story goal into sub-goals. The sub-goals become scene and act goals.
Ideally, the protagonist and antagonist mirror each other and offer complimentary answers to the story’s big idea or theme.
The protagonist’s and the antagonist’s motivations can be the same, e.g. to find someone to love. They can even have the same story goal, like seducing the same man.
The protagonist and antagonist may even have identical needs, e.g. to love unconditionally. While the protagonist will look inside and learn how to love unconditionally, the antagonist will look for other means to secure her love interest.
The protagonist and antagonist differ in the means they use. For the antagonist, the end justifies the means, the protagonist has principles. Protagonists arc, antagonists refuse to arc and take the easy way. The protagonist tells a prescriptive tale, the antagonist tells a cautionary tale.
Once you decided on your character’s motivations, desires, goals, and needs, you still need to make them believable. You do that with Characterization. For Characterization you need to know psychology too. The next article of this series will dive into that.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and it helped you to fine-tune your protagonist’s motivations, objects of desire, goals, and needs.
Why don’t you share the motivation, object of desire, goal, and need of your WIP’s protagonist in the comments?
Stefan Emunds is the author of The Eight Crafts of Writing. He writes inspirational non-fiction and visionary fiction stories and runs an online inspiration and enlightenment workshop. Stefan was born in Germany and enjoyed two years backpacking in Australia, New Zealand, and South-East Asia in his early twenties. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as a business development manager in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. At the moment, he lives with his son in the Philippines.
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I appreciate your post about getting character motivation just right and how to weave it throughout the story. It makes a big difference in keeping readers engaged.
Thanks for the detailed post.
Thank you for sharing the importance of understanding psychological concepts as it relates to effective story telling. It will be helpful to keep this in mind during a future writing project I am considering working on.
I understand the point your making, but the climax doesn't really show character growth to me. Perhaps I'm missing something. We don't see where Laura did the work to deserve the job--a charismatic speech is not enough. And cutting her mother down doesn't make Laura a likeable character, it just makes her as bad as her mother by stooping down to her level. Instead of confidence, I'm seeing petulance.
I don't think the Laura character would fly in today's WF genre. Unless you're Colleen Hoover, but most people aren't.