A character’s motivation is central to who they are. You could say it’s what motivates them.* Without it, characters won’t do the hard work a plot requires of them. Motivation is especially important to protagonists. If the main character doesn’t have a strong motivation, readers will have nothing to identify with. It also comes across as contrived if a protagonist is willing to suffer all the hardships of their mission or quest without a strong reason to do so.
Despite all that, writers often fail to establish strong motivations for their characters. Let’s look at seven of the worst offenders, each failing in their own special way.
1. James Holden, Leviathan Wakes
At the start of the Expanse book series, James Holden is just your average ex-navy officer turned freighter XO, plying the Saturn ice trade lanes. You know, normal stuff. Meanwhile, the Asteroid Belt colonies foment violent revolution against the hegemony of Earth and Mars. The obvious choice of motivation for Holden would have been to give him some strongly held opinion on the political turmoil that’s ravaging the Solar System.
Instead, Holden’s central motivation is that he believes all information should be made available to everyone immediately, with no thought for context or consequences. That isn’t his only motivation, but it’s what drives the story. The first major plot event is Holden finding a Belter freighter that’s been attacked, and its crew has been killed. While on board, he finds a piece of tech with obvious Martian markings on it.
From there, Holden broadcasts to the entire system that he’s found a piece of Martian military gear on a dead Belter freighter. Holden makes his transmission without adding any context, like that they don’t know how the piece of gear got there, that the obvious markings are highly suspicious, and that there are extremists on both sides who’d like nothing more than to see tension boil over into war. Never mind that Mars had no reason to attack a civilian freighter. Because political tensions between the Belt and Mars are so high, many people automatically assume that Mars attacked the freighter, and the situation begins to spiral out of control.
Holden repeats this stunt a number of times throughout the first book, broadcasting inflammatory information the moment he finds it. He comes off as a caricature of a freedom-of-information advocate. In fact the main point of his actions seems to be so the other protagonist, the cynical Detective Miller, can tell Holden how naive he’s being and that sometimes information has to be kept from people for their own good.
Not only does Holden’s core motivation make him look stupid, but it also ends up being an argument for a form of authoritarianism. This is extra irresponsible in an era when governments all too often conceal vital information from the public in the name of security and safety.
The Expanse TV show handles Holden’s initial broadcast much better. In the show, Holden himself is convinced that Mars attacked the freighter. When a Martian warship approaches, he makes his broadcast to ensure that Mars can’t just kill him and his crewmates to cover up the evidence.
2. Chandra, The Fire’s Stone
Chandra the wizard is one of three protagonists in this novel about getting a magical McGuffin to keep a volcano from erupting. The other two protagonists have very strong motivations. One is motivated to save his country, the other is motivated by a magical compulsion, and both have their blossoming love for each other.*
So how does Chandra’s motivation compare? It turns out she has more than one. A lot more. At the start of the story, she leaves home because she doesn’t want to go through with an arranged marriage. That’s fine, but it doesn’t have anything to do with her adventure to retrieve the McGuffin. Then she’s motivated by curiosity about the McGuffin itself, but her feelings are never shown to be very strong. Not the sort of thing that sends one on a dangerous journey into enemy territory.
The final motivation we’re left with is her friendship with the other two protagonists, but that also falls apart. For one thing, at the start of the story she barely knows them. Even when she gets to know them better, they’re consumed with their love story. Chandra feels like such a third wheel that she’s in danger of breaking away entirely and becoming a unicycle. To be clear, she didn’t need to get romantic with the others to have a strong connection. She could have bonded with them over something platonic, like their shared desire to save people from a volcano. Unfortunately, nothing like that happens until far too late in the story, and even then it’s fairly weak.
And those are only the motivations that are directly related to the plot. Chandra is also motivated by disappointment in her father, but it’s not clear what that motivation is getting her to do. She and her father have little interaction after her first chapter, so there’s no resolution on that front. Even weirder, she’s motivated by a desire to avoid sex because she thinks it’ll weaken her magical powers. This motivation is never addressed either, and it’s mostly forgotten about by the end.
So instead of one or two strong motivations, Chandra has at least five weak ones. None of them make her an identifiable character or provide her a strong reason to be on the quest. It’s no wonder she’s sometimes left on her own for entire chapters while the other two characters go off and have their own adventures.
3. Bo, Lost Girl
In this urban fantasy adventure, Bo is a succubus who grew up among humans, never knowing that there was an entire world of magical creatures out there. These Fae* divide themselves into two groups: Light and Dark.
The Light Fae, while not perfect, are generally considered to be the good guys. They believe in living peacefully with humans and spend considerable resources on capturing Fae who abuse humans. The Dark Fae, on the other hand, are portrayed as mustache-twirlingly evil. Naturally, Bo chooses to align herself with the Light Fae because—Oops, I’m sorry, actually she declares that she’s going to remain neutral, even though she clearly shares most of the Light Fae’s values.
Bo’s motivation for this is, at best, a case of stubborn contrariness. She’s told she has to choose either Light or Dark, and she refuses to pick either because she’s a beautiful and unique snowflake. That’s not a very sympathetic motivation for the main character, which makes it hard to like Bo.
The writers then undermine Bo’s motivation even further by having her hang out and work exclusively with Light Fae for several seasons. She even goes on a few missions for the Light Fae leaders, and she clearly expects the Light Fae to help her when she’s in trouble.
Because of her close association with the Light Fae, Bo comes across as someone who wants the benefits of joining a group but not the responsibilities. She’s basically one of those people who loves to benefit from union-negotiated contracts but refuses to pay union dues.
4. Kathryn Janeway, Voyager
At first, Captain Janeway’s motivations seem straightforward enough: she’s a stickler for the Prime Directive and Starfleet regulations. She’s perfectly willing to give up chances at getting her lost ship home or even let entire planets die in order to avoid breaking the rules. That’s not a great motivation for the hero, but at least it’s clear.
But within the first few episodes, another side of Janeway emerges. Sometimes, she’s perfectly willing to violate a hostile species’ border in order to get home a little faster, and at times she’s happy to get involved in someone else’s fight. At one point she even trades bioweapons to the Borg, the Federation’s most dangerous enemy, to get home faster.
There isn’t some turning point where Janeway goes from a rules stickler to an ultimate pragmatist. These episodes are all mixed together in every season of the show. At first, Janeway’s motivation seems nonsensical. She claims that it’s so important to get home that she’ll risk war with aliens to cross their territory, yet she has no problem stopping for days or even weeks to study some new stellar phenomena. At the same time, she deems it a waste of time to stop so the Doctor can attend a conference on space-borne pathogens.*
But slowly, a pattern emerges. Janeway’s willingness to break the rules or stop and explore correlates almost exactly with how much conflict it generates. Violate a dangerous species’ territory to save a few months on a 70-year trip? That has the potential to get Voyager blown up, so absolutely. Help some robots correct a flaw in their programming that stops them from reproducing? Well if she said yes the episode would be over and her Chief Engineer would have nothing to rail against, so Janeway is not into it.
This rule applies even in stories where Voyager has a chance to get home. In one episode, Voyager finds some Ferengi happily exploiting the inhabitants of a bronze-age civilization. Nearby is a wormhole back to Federation space, but it’ll collapse soon. Janeway’s not willing to leave the Ferengi where they are, and fair enough, they’re causing a lot of harm. But instead of simply grabbing them with a transporter, she concocts an elaborate scheme that ends up taking so long that Voyager misses the wormhole. Her reasoning is that just taking the Ferengi by force would cause unintended consequences to the people the Ferengi were exploiting.
In another episode, Voyager discovers a Borg wormhole* that also leads back to Federation space. This time Janeway’s all about rushing the wormhole as soon as possible, even though in doing so she’ll be letting the Borg get a good look at some extremely advanced technology she picked up from the future.* Remember that the Borg’s special skill is adapting new technology as their own. Suddenly she has no concern for the unintended consequences of her actions.
What we’re left with is a captain who makes decisions based on what is most likely to get people killed. Obviously this wasn’t intentional, but it’s what happens when the writers get lazy and just assume their main character will drive the story no matter what kind it is.
5. Jonathan Archer, Enterprise
And you thought Janeway was the worst Star Trek had to offer, hah! Meet Captain Archer, a man as confusing as he is immature. Nothing about Archer’s motivation makes sense. For one thing, he really hates Vulcans, to the point where his microaggressions become straight up normal aggressions. His motivation for hating them? Because they didn’t give his father the advanced tech he needed to finish a human warp-five engine. He’s mad because there wasn’t Vulcan tech in the first human warp-five engine. That’s an impressive feat of mental gymnastics.
The real failure in Archer’s motivation is the way he chooses what to explore. Essentially, he does this by finding whatever planet or phenomena the Vulcans don’t want him poking at and setting a course right for it. In one episode, he decides to visit a secluded Vulcan monastery, even though he hates Vulcans and is bored by everything about them. He seems to do this only because the Vulcans don’t want people visiting their secluded holy place.
Another time, Archer passes up the chance to explore a rare cluster of neutron stars in favor of a visiting pre-industrial civilization. He does this over his Vulcan science officer’s objection. Keep in mind that humans have met plenty of alien species so far and that Archer isn’t an anthropologist. There’s nothing special about this civilization other than that the Vulcans don’t want him poking around there.
Once Archer finally reaches the thing he wants to explore, his methods for doing so also seem designed to go against whatever the Vulcans would do. When visiting a strange planet for the first time, it would make sense to gather data on it first, right? To make sure there’s nothing dangerous down there? Ah, but you see that’s Vulcan policy, and Archer isn’t gonna let the Vulcans tell him what to do! Then of course his landing party nearly dies from a toxin they didn’t know about because they didn’t do any preliminary data gathering. Small price to pay as far as Archer is concerned.
Where Janeway’s motivation unintentionally comes across as trying to get her crew killed, Archer’s motivation is racist contrariness, and I think it’s on purpose. Someone in the writers’ room probably thought it would showcase the human spirit, but instead it just makes Earth’s first explorer look like a petulant child. Fortunately, Archer does get a little better as Enterprise progresses, but it wasn’t enough to save the show from early cancellation.
6. Merlin, Merlin
In this BBC drama, Merlin has two main motivations. The first is help his noble but somewhat clueless friend, Arthur, and that’s reasonable. The second is to keep King Uther Pendragon alive, and that’s where the show runs into trouble.
You see, people are always trying to kill Uther. He has enemies everywhere, and keeping him alive is a full-time job. On the surface that doesn’t sound like a terrible motivation for Merlin, and it wouldn’t be except that Uther is one of the most awful people who has ever lived. For one thing, he treats Merlin very badly, at one point making him drink a cup of wine Uther suspects might be poisoned. For another, Uther is a terrible king. His “diplomacy” skills anger other monarchs to the point of war, and he’s not even that good at fighting.
But all of that pales in comparison to Uther’s real crime: he executes anyone with the ability to use magic. Literally anyone. Casting a spell to increase the year’s harvest or cure a sick loved one is enough to earn the death sentence. The show is very clear that Uther had children killed, too, when he purged magic from Camelot, to the point where calling him Fantasy Hitler doesn’t feel like an exaggeration. Even Merlin himself isn’t safe. If Uther ever finds out that Merlin can use magic, Merlin will be dead within the hour no matter how many times he’s saved the kingdom.
Not only is Uther heinous on a moral level, but his genocidal policy towards magic also puts Camelot at a serious disadvantage against its neighbors, none of which have sworn off magic. This is the king that Merlin keeps defending, often killing others in the process, even though almost every one of Uther’s enemies has a legitimate reason to want him dead.
And Merlin’s devotion to Uther is never properly explained. There’s some noise made about Arthur not being ready for the throne, but that’s clearly not true. Arthur is brave, charismatic, and an able commander. He’s not perfect, but he’s miles above Uther.
Really, the reason Merlin keeps defending Uther is that the writers have trapped themselves with their own premise. Merlin is super powerful, and if he could practice magic openly, there’d be no challenge. The only way for the writers to create conflict is for Merlin to do all his magic on the sly so he won’t be killed by evil king Uther. Unfortunately, they failed to think of a good reason for Uther to keep his throne.
7. Fitz, Assassin’s Apprentice
Moving away from television but staying in the realm of fantasy,* we have Fitz. Of all the characters on this list, Fitz is unique. He doesn’t have a nonsensical or irritating motivation. In fact, he has no motivation at all.
In the first few chapters, Fitz might as well be a camera on a cart for all the emotion he brings into the story. Everything is very well described, except for Fitz’s reaction to it. As the book goes on, Fitz does start to have the occasional emotion, but he’s still extremely passive. He almost never goes out and does anything for himself.
Instead, the story is a series of other people deciding that Fitz needs an upgrade in his status and Fitz going along with it. First, it’s decided that he’s going to apprentice with the stable master, and he’s fine with that. Then the King decides that Fitz will train as an assassin, and Fitz thinks that’s okay. Then a noble woman decides that Fitz needs an education, and he accepts it without complaint. Finally, the King announces that Fitz will also get trained in magic. This time Fitz is a little miffed because his schedule is already crowded, but he’s doesn’t feel strongly enough to say anything, even to his friends.
At no point in the first two thirds of the book does Fitz demonstrate any strong desires or wants. He does demonstrate romantic interest in another character, but it’s not strong enough to get him to do anything. He just drifts through life, accepting everything that happens to him, rarely having any desires worth mentioning.
Fitz is written this way to be a blank protagonist, someone the reader inserts themselves into so they can vicariously live the adventure. Blank protagonists can’t have too many personality traits, or else the reader can’t easily insert themselves. Harry Potter is another blank protagonist. His only distinguishing features are generically positive traits like bravery.
But Harry Potter works because he has a clear external conflict: Voldemort keeps trying to kill him. Assassin’s Apprentice, on the other hand, has very little external conflict for Fitz to play against. It’s a character-driven story, but Fitz has no character to drive it. As a result he’s deadly dull, and it’s a long wait before anything interesting happens.
A bad motivation will sabotage your protagonist, and a bad protagonist will sabotage your story. If your protagonist has a nonsensical motivation, it will anger readers until they write long posts about it on the internet. If your protagonist has a poorly defined motivation, or no motivation at all, that’s even worse. Readers will get bored and put down your story, never to mention it again.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.