I recently wrote the first draft of a short story and posted it for critiques. I always like having strangers critique my work because they have no reason to lie to me, and they’re often very brutal. This time was no different.
The problem with my story was one of character motivation. In the climax, I had the antagonist set to blow up a train station. The only problem- I never stated why he wanted to do such a thing. Did he have a grudge against mass transport? Who knows, because I never made that clear, and my story suffered because of that mistake. So, I decided to brush up a little on character motivation, and share some of my research with you gentle reader.
What is character motivation?
In literature, motivation describes the reason behind the actions and behavior of a character. It answers the question: Why does a character do this or that? A character without proper motivation will often take your reader right out of the story. Skimp on motivation and you may find your manuscript hopelessly flawed.
How do you find your character’s motivation?
Character motivation can be tricky. You want to avoid cliche while also making your character’s motives believable and realistic. With that said, here are five tips to help you develop your character’s motivation.
Build a Backstory
Devoting time to your character’s backstory is the easiest way to create their motivation. In many stories, something, usually a traumatizing event, takes place in the character’s life and this propels them to take action.
Why does Batman dress in a pointy-eared costume and assault criminals in the dark of night? Because he watched his parents as they were gunned down in the street by a petty thief.
If you’re having a hard time coming up with your character’s motives, sit down and write out their biography. Imagine what in their past shapes the decisions that they will make in your story. Maybe they self-sabotage every significant relationship because they never got over the loss of their first love. Maybe they’re terrified of fire because their childhood house burned down. The origin of an effective motivation is often found in past experiences.
Explore Character Psychology
Remember, your characters need to think and act like real people in order for them to be believable to your reader. And like the rest of us, your characters might not be aware of why they’re doing the things they do. This is called unconscious motivation.
Giving your character an unconscious motivation is an excellent way to make them more complex. What does this mean in practice? Again, you may need to rely on your character’s backstory. Yet, rather than your character actively using past events to dictate their actions, they are driven by events in ways they don’t understand or are aware of.
Perhaps your character was abandoned by their father and this causes them to mistrust authority figures in their adult life. Deep down they may be aware of this connection, but they’re not going to voice that motivation directly. It will be up to you, the writer, to show a connection between the actions of a character, and what event is indirectly motivating those actions.
You may even look to your own personal experience to find examples of unconscious motivations. If you’re not sure why you act a certain way- ask yourself: why am I really doing this?
Use the Plot
Your character may not begin the story with a strong motivation. They may be a normal person living a quiet, mundane life. However, events of the plot- like the inciting incident– may motivate them to become an active, dynamic character.
Think of the original Iron Man film. Tony Stark was living a normal life. Well, a normal life if your a wealthy, jet-setting, playboy, but the events of the plot turn his world upside down. He’s kidnapped by militants and discovers that his company’s actions are costing innocent people their lives.
With this information, Stark undergoes a change in personality. No longer does he float through his life, giving no thought to the consequences of his actions. He decides to become a positive force, a hero- Iron Man. In a word, Tony Stark finds his motivation. And he finds it right there in the plot of the movie.
Interview your character
Here’s a fun exercise to get at the core of your character’s motives. Just ask them! Come up with a list of questions for your character to answer.
What was their childhood like?
Who are the people who had the greatest influence on your character?
Is your character rich or poor?
Single or married?
Are your character’s parents alive? If not, what happened to them?
Has your character ever suffered any trauma in their life?
Obviously, you’ll be coming up with the answer to these questions. But, they will help you build your character’s backstory. You might even find a motivation you hadn’t considered before!
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)
Sometimes, you don’t have to have a complex backstory to explain your character’s motivation. In fact, sometimes the simplest emotions are the most powerful. Take, for instance, that tried and true cinematic motivation- Revenge.
From Unforgiven to Oldboy, Punisher to Payback, revenge has been the engine of countless plots going all the way back to Hamlet. What makes it an effective motivation is that it’s simple, it’s understandable, and it’s something we can all identify with.
But revenge is not the only universal motivation. There’s also love, or greed, or a need for acceptance. So, if you can’t find your character’s motivation, explore one of these simple ideas. Determine if they fit into your character’s backstory.
So, there are five tips for developing your character’s motivations. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some serious re-writing to attend to.
Maybe you’ve gone through all five of these tips and you still can’t find your character’s motivation. Don’t sweat my pet. I’ve got you covered. Here’s a website that will do a little of the work for you. It’s called the Character Motivation Generator from springhole.net. It’s not the most imaginative way to develop a motivation, but maybe it’s just the spark you need to ignite those creative embers!
Or, if you’ve read through this entire article (thank you, by the way) and find it… lacking. Here are some other great articles I used for my research:
I really wanted to talk about a particular scene, dealing with motivation, but I couldn’t find a place to fit it in the article. So, I’m just going to mention it here. One of my favorite examples of character motivation comes from one of my favorite childhood movies- Silence of the Lambs… I was a strange child.
Anyway, the motivation in question is that of Clarice Starling. Much of the plot centers around her relationship with serial killer Hannibal Lecter. As a trained psychiatrist, he’s driven to find out exactly what makes the young FBI agent tick. The culmination of his efforts to reveal her secrets comes in this pivotal scene: