Storytelling

The Why & How of Character Motivation

In Gothika (2003), Dr. Miranda Grey has to care for one of her patients, find the meaning behind her visions, and prove she didn't kill her husband.

A critical part of developing any character is giving them motivation. Unfortunately, that’s not always as simple as it seems. The motivation has to be compelling and believable while working with the story at large. Let’s talk more about motivation and how you can get it to shine in your story.

Why Motivation Is Essential

In Inception (2010), Dom Cobb wants to get back to his family. This motivates him to take on a difficult job and makes the outcome matter. In Inception (2010), Dom Cobb wants to get back to his family. This motivates him to take on a difficult job and makes the outcome of that job matter.

Without motivation, a character will feel lackluster. That’s because motivation provides many essential characteristics.

  • Consistency. Unless you establish what your character wants and then fashion their actions to pursue it, their behavior will feel arbitrary and disorganized. If you always keep their motivation in mind, they’re much less likely to contradict themselves.
  • Investment. If your character doesn’t want anything, they have little reason to care about what’s happening in the story. In turn, the audience has little reason to care about what happens to your character. If they have a goal they care about, then it’s also possible to succeed or fail at that goal. That makes the outcome of events more important.
  • Proactivity. A character that doesn’t want anything has no reason to take action on their own initiative. Instead they will simply sit back and react to everything that happens to them. That simply doesn’t make for a satisfying story. The audience wants to see characters step in and intentionally change the course of events.
  • Growth. A character who wants nothing has little reason to push themselves out of their comfort zone and grow as a person. Because they have little to gain or lose, they’ll end the story right where they started, denying them a satisfying arc.

The Characteristics of Solid Motivation

Tristan tries to solve his feelings of inadequacy by wooing the most sought after woman in his village. Once he gains the confidence he needs, he realizes he doesn't really love her. In Stardust (2007), Tristan tries to solve his feelings of inadequacy by wooing the most sought-after woman in his village. Once he gains the confidence he needs, he realizes he doesn’t love her.

Not all motivations work equally well in stories. Your character’s motivation should be:

  • Prioritized. Each character decision should have one primary motivation behind it. If your character needs additional motivations in the same scene, clearly show that those motivations are less important to their decision-making. Otherwise the audience may become confused about the character’s goals.
  • Concrete. Convert motivations that sound vague or abstract into ones that are specific and immediate. A protagonist with a philosophy of radical anarchy might be hard for your audience to get, but if they want to bring the high chancellor to justice, your audience will understand. A villain who wants to destroy the world to rebuild it from the ashes will feel far-fetched, but if they want to specifically dismantle the current government so they can grab power, that will feel believable.
  • Compelling. It’s not enough to just assign a motivation to a character, particularly if that character is an important protagonist. Their motivation should form because something impacts them significantly. They pursue their goals because they have something to gain or lose that is meaningful. Otherwise your story could feel boring, and your character could feel shallow or petty.
  • Fitting. Motivations need to fit the character’s personality and background. Look at the backstory of the character, their emotional temperament, and their ideology, and let the motivation grow out of that. For instance, the leader of a violent rebel movement is unlikely to be motivated by pacifism; that is, unless you build a backstory in which a tragic event caused them to feel great remorse over the violence they caused.

If you’re creating motivation for your main character, work to give that motivation some depth and complexity. This will both make your character more interesting and provide more options for resolving their arc. Here are some ways to give their motivation more meat.

  • Give them a goal that won’t really satisfy them. Maybe your character is uncomfortable with anything unfamiliar, and instead of adapting to new circumstances, they try to make everything go back to the way it was. Or perhaps they’re very lonely but are investing in computer programs that simulate relationships instead of pursuing real ones.
  • Fill in a deeper, emotional need. Maybe your character wants to win a tournament to impress their distant and judgmental mother. That goal is driven by a deeper need to connect with their mother or feel loved and appreciated in general.
  • Connect to their past and future. A motivation can be a vehicle for both the notions that your character has formed over previous years and the vision they have for their future. Perhaps your protagonist comes from a neighborhood where the most successful people were wizards. For that character, wizardry embodies success, and they’re refusing military service because it would deny them the opportunity to pursue that dream.

Conveying Motivation to Your Audience

butterfly-effect-ill-come-back-for-you The Butterfly Effect (2004) uses numerous scenes to build up the protagonist’s attachment to his childhood friend. After she dies, an old note to her is re-purposed to communicate his goal.

The difficulty of conveying a character’s motivation depends on the depth and complexity of that motivation, the screen time the character gets, and the medium your story is in. I’ll cover communicating motivation in different scenarios.

Depicting Emotional Motivations

If you have a central character with a deep motivation, it’s often best to start with the deepest feelings. In a written medium, storytellers often make the mistake of just telling this feeling to their audience. Instead, you need to show it by describing the details of their life. A character who feels hurt and neglected can remember how their mother used to smile when they approached, but after their public humiliation, now she just looks disappointed whenever they meet. To establish loneliness, you can describe the relationships your character has lost and how their current life feels incomplete.

If you’re in a visual medium or this motivation is critical to the story, it can be worth setting up a scene to establish this feeling. Your goal is to make the audience feel how the character feels. Your character might proudly show a new painting they spent a month on to their mother, only for her to barely glance at it and call it “nice” in a dismissive voice. Your character’s beloved could break up with them. Crying, they might call several people for comfort, only to find no one has time for them.

For a character with a complex motivation in any medium, their backstory may be important enough that you need a flashback scene. First, make sure that summarizing the past event won’t illustrate your characters feelings well enough. Then get your audience attached to the character before you dive into your flashback.

After you’ve established the deeper emotion, bring in observations and thoughts that build on that emotion, giving the character direction. Perhaps their mother is smiling and clapping at the winners of the tournament, and if the character wins that tournament next year, she’ll smile and clap at them too. Or perhaps the members of an exclusive group all share meals together at the same table, laughing at each other’s jokes all evening. What would it be like to sit at the table with them? If you’re working in a visual medium, a look of longing or some failed attempts to ask for what they want can communicate a character’s specific goals.

Shortcuts for Complex Motivations

Sometimes you have a character with a backstory that’s deep and complex, but you’re not in a written medium and this character won’t have enough screen time to justify several scenes establishing how they feel. Your audience won’t get it unless you do a little more telling rather than showing, so it’s time to break out the dialogue. The trick is to give your character a natural reason to talk about their own feelings. Take these examples.

  • Venting: Set up a scene that hits all your character’s sensitive buttons until they finally vent about what’s bothering them to the nearest person.
  • Apologies: If your character’s motivations cause them to act out, when they apologize it will feel natural for them to explain how they were feeling.
  • Comfort: People often reveal personal information to make others feel better. Your character could explain their feelings or motivation to help relate to another character.
  • Goading: An antagonistic person might hit on your character’s pride, goading them into revealing information they might otherwise keep private.
  • Therapy: Having scenes with a therapist can speed up explanations, but they must be integrated into the story. Consider making the therapist an important character.

Avoid having a “friend” character that puts pressure on the person to explain their feelings or tells that person what they feel for them. A supportive person respects other people’s boundaries. They don’t assume they know what that person is thinking and feeling or what that person has to do to resolve their problems.

Establishing Motivation for Minor Roles

Minor characters and non-viewpoint characters should have motivation too, but in most cases that motivation should be simple. Most stories don’t have time to describe the complex motivation of more than a few characters.

The most important practice for any side or non-viewpoint character is to think through their motivation when depicting them. What would a clever person with their motivation actually do?* It’s very easy to neglect this, and when you do, it will show. Their actions just won’t make any sense. But if your character’s motivation is simple and they consistently act on it, the audience will probably know what the character wants just by watching them.

If that doesn’t work, the character can ask for what they want, mention it casually, or others can figure it out and briefly state what it is. Just make sure every character has a reason to say the things they do.

Regardless of the character, motivation, or medium, don’t neglect body language. It can show not only surface feelings but also the feelings your character is hiding. Imagine your character is on the phone congratulating their cousin on being first in their class. Their voice sounds happy, but their hands are crumpling up a piece of paper. Your audience now knows they resent their cousin’s status.

Using Motivation to Drive Character Change

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana's father represents the need to let the holy grail go. After an internal struggle, Indiana listens. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana’s father represents the need to let the Holy Grail go. After an internal struggle, Indiana listens.

Character growth is created by two conflicting motivations. Often, one of those motivations is a flaw that the character must overcome. For instance, your character might be a bigot who hates elves. Because of this flaw, showing up the elves is a continual motivation for them. But they have another motivation: getting supplies for their war-stricken home village. What do you know, they can only get those supplies by humbling themselves before the elves and asking for help. Their more noble motivation will push them to overcome their flaw.

When your character has important conflicts between motivations, take some time to show the audience their internal struggle. Let them hesitate, looking back and forth between their options. If the struggle is happening in a viewpoint character via a written medium, narrate them weighing the pros and cons of each option in their head. Otherwise, it can be helpful to have other characters present to make the case for each choice.

You can also introduce story elements to strengthen one of the battling motivations. Doing this can pull your character in one direction or increase the intensity of the struggle. Maybe an elf who harmed the character’s family shows up, reinforcing their hatred. Or perhaps a runner comes from the village, emphasizing how desperate their situation is. 

Avoiding Common Problems With Motivation

Janeway suffers from being a Contrary Leader. Viewers might wonder if she actually wants her crew to get home. On Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway is a contrary leader. Viewers might wonder if she really wants to go home like the premise says. She only takes shortcuts that will get her ship and crew in trouble.

Here are some of the most common problems with character motivation and how you can fix them.

The Unmotivated Protagonist

They just want to go about their business. How dare the world come to them with problems? They’ll maybe work on those problems when they feel like it, but mostly they’ll just pour themselves a martini and read a good book.

If that describes your character, your story will start slooooow. Instead, create an event in the beginning that messes with their life. Take something away, something they care about. To get it back, they’ll have to become a hero. Don’t let them fix other people’s problems without having a stake of their own in the matter.

The Contrary Leader

A character with the means to alter the plot is either being a jerk for no reason or is doing something that is by any reasonable measure the wrong thing to do. In the latter case, the character might actually be right, but all evidence points to the contrary. Similarly, a leader character might take an aggressive looking action and refuse to explain their reasons. A shapeshifter is masquerading as a member of their crew? Just shoot it without telling anyone it’s a shapeshifter.

The contrary leader is a character with plot-convenient motivation. The storyteller isn’t sure how to create conflict naturally, so they make a powerful character generate it for them. If you are tempted to do that, look at your story’s premise. Why doesn’t it have plenty of conflict without twisting a character’s motivation? It’s likely that the technology or magic system of the world is too powerful, making problems trivial to solve. Or maybe you need to give your protagonists some legitimate differences in ideology so they can get in arguments realistically.

The Inconsistent Antagonist

What strange and mysterious plan does the villain have? They do one perplexing thing after the next, always creating problems for the protagonists but never killing anyone important. Their actions are all some part of a master scheme that will be revealed at the end… except once it’s revealed, it can’t possibly explain the all things they’ve done.

The farther a character is from the camera, the more tempting it is to make them do things without thinking through their motivation. Villains are often offscreen, making them especially susceptible. Since each action the villain takes helps build the conflict and has several plausible explanations, surely it will come together? Unfortunately, it won’t. Even if you manage to explain their decisions, their body language and dialogue will be subtly off. Put yourself in the character’s place. If you had their goal, what would you do?


Investing some time in thinking through the motivations of your important characters can save you countless hours. Motivation provides the foundation for character depiction, character actions, and the plot that results. When it’s done well, stories are infinitely more enjoyable.

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Comments

  1. Tumblingxelian

    This was a fantastic read, thank you!

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