Good Advice: Character Motivations

When was the last time you had to make a big decision in your life? Was it easy? Was there one specific reason why you made the decision you did, or were you conflicted, with several factors pulling you in different directions? Typically real human beings are under the constant sway of multiple urges, desires, obligations, and whims that can change on a minute-by-minute basis.

(Quick life tip that I heard somewhere, which works really well: if you need to choose between two options, but you aren’t sure, flip a coin. Don’t actually follow the coin’s advice, but see how the coin’s choice made you feel. This can help you find the choice you wanted to make all along.)

Characters in stories are just as conflicted–or they should be. Your hero may want to defuse the bomb, but he also needs to call his mom and make sure she’s taking her medication. She may really want to go back to school and earn a better degree, but has to think about how she’s going to feed her kids at the same time. Good characters have multiple connections to the world around them, which means that, like real humans, they are caught in a web of duties and desires that they have trouble navigating, much less breaking free from. That’s good; it makes your characters feel grounded and relatable.

It’s also bad because like most real humans, they’re going to be caught in a morass of indecision and doubt. But stories need to move fast–no matter what pace you’ve set for your story, you only have so many words, so many pages. It’s going to be necessary to prune away all those decision-swaying motivations so your character can focus on the job at hand. Not that they can’t still feel all those other wants and hopes–they’re all still there, but you, the writer, are going to focus on what’s important to your story, not necessarily what’s important to your character. All those other fears and aspirations can wait for another story, or they can happen off page.

But which of their many motivations do you cut, and which do you highlight?

If you’re struggling with this, make a list of everything your character wants, needs, desires or feels responsible for. You can drawn this like a spiderweb graph of arrows pointing in various directions if you’re feeling ambitious. Otherwise just make a list. Don’t number the motivations and don’t worry what order they’re in. For the moment we’re assuming they’re all equal.

Now–pick two of those motivations. Pick the two that interest you the most, or the two that are going to make for the best story. Pick two: not one, not three. Two.

One of those motivations should be resolving the plot of your story. Defeating the villain, or finding the money to save the youth activity center, or learning to love again. You already know you need this motivation, or the story just isn’t going to happen.

Pick a second motivation. Hopefully it’s something that’s in direct conflict with your first choice. Maybe fighting the villain is going to be a problem because your character also needs to work a full shift at the Burger Palace, flipping patties. If they’re late for their shift they’re going to lose their job.

You can probably see already how this creates a dynamic character who has conflicting needs. It’s also a great way to brainstorm scenes–how do they get Carla to take over their shift, when she’s already got plans with her girlfriend? How do they convince the villain to come into the Burger Palace, so the climactic fight can happen as part of the hero’s job duties? The story almost writes itself.

Without that second motivation, your story is driven entirely by the plot, not by the character. So you need two. You could add a third motivation, but then your character feels like they’re incapable of making a decision or like they don’t take the primary threat seriously enough. Pick two. Put your character on the horns of a dilemma, and then force them to find a way to reconcile those two desires.

Some things to consider while you’re choosing:

  • Write out the motivations as declarative, first person statements. I want to open a doggy day care. Pretend your character is describing their desires and needs directly to you, the writer. They’ll feel more urgent and meaningful that way.
  • Try to pick positive, affirmative motivations: desires that point your character in a direction that keeps them moving. Negative, dissuading motivations, like: I’m worried my dad will be disappointed, I’m not sure if I’m strong enough, I was never loved as a child make your character feel passive and uninspired. Affirmative motivations are better: I want to impress my dad, I want to prove I’m strong enough, I will make sure my child feels loved.
  • The two motivations should be as different from each other as possible: I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I want the gold because I could buy a new Corvette are too close together to feel like they’re in true conflict. I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I promised my therapist I would stop going on wacky adventures are more likely to create interesting dilemmas for your characters.
  • Motivations are different from hazards and pitfalls. I don’t want to go to jail isn’t a good motivation (in character development terms), even if it’s a problem your character will face while avenging their dead great-aunt. Find a way to express the problem as an actual desire: I’m in love with the super-hot sheriff is a positive, affirmative motivation–it spurs character action and choices, and it also creates conflict since the sheriff’s attention will potentially stymie the revenge plot.
  • Be as specific as possible with your motivations. I want more money is okay, but it’s pretty common and doesn’t really pull the character in a meaningful direction. I want to rob a bank is a lot better–it sets things into motion.
  • Never forget that motivations can change! As the story develops, your character’s desire to impress the local Rhododendron Grower’s Club may fade, as they realize their real life’s work is stopping the drug dealers who kidnapped their corgi. But don’t drop a motivation too early in your story. Your character will feel much more focused, but you lose a lot in terms of plot development. Abandoning a motivation should only happen near the end of your Second Act–typically this is the point of no return in a story. Similarly, motivations shouldn’t be met or overcome too soon. If your character is broke on page one, and they discover a lost Picasso on page seventeen, all the work you did to establish their money woes just disappears and is no longer interesting. Unless it turns out having all that new money creates all new problems for them to face… basically motivations should stick with a character throughout a story. If they do reassess their feelings, it should come as late in the plot as possible.