A character’s motivation is one of their most important aspects, right up there with agency and likability. Motivation is why a character does what they do. It’s what drives them to take difficult and costly actions. If a motivation is too weak, character behavior will feel contrived and the audience won’t become invested in the conflict at hand. Unfortunately, authors often get so caught up in their heroes’ gallant deeds and villains’ heinous crimes that the reasons behind those actions are neglected. As a consolation, that means we have plenty of examples to analyze and learn from.
1. Mahit: A Memory Called Empire
At the start of this Hugo-nominated novel, protagonist Mahit has a very strong motivation. She’s being dispatched to the capital of the space empire Teixcalaan with a single mission: keep her small world of Lsel from being annexed. Since Lsel is Mahit’s home and would undoubtedly suffer under imperial rule, this is a strong motivation. Mahit is also motivated to solve her predecessor’s murder, partly because it’s the right thing to do, and partly because she carries her predecessor’s memories and personality inside her with the help of something called an imago machine.
So far, so good. But later in the book, Mahit’s motivation quickly sputters out. She solves the murder, and then she gets the information she needs to ensure that Lsel remains free. All she has to do is give this information to the emperor, and she’s set. However, there’s still a lot of book left, which is taken up by various Teixcalaan power players all making a bid for the throne.
When this power struggle goes critical, Mahit is relatively safe in the capital city’s outskirts. The smart thing to do would be to stay put until the dust settles, then take her information to the last claimant left standing. Instead, Mahit risks life and limb to reach the palace so she can give her information to the current emperor, as she believes this will help him keep his throne. This is incredibly dangerous, and a dear friend dies in the attempt. So, why does Mahit do it?
That part isn’t clear at all. While the current emperor is relatively peaceful by Teixcalaan standards, he’s still planning to annex Lsel, so Mahit has no practical reason to want him in charge. Her predecessor was the emperor’s lover, so it’s possible Mahit is being influenced by her imago memories, but if that’s the case, it isn’t shown clearly. It’s also indicated that Mahit’s information will work with whoever ends up as emperor, so risking her life to reach the palace actually harms Lsel’s chances of staying free. If she dies en route, there won’t be anyone to deliver the information.
How to Fix It
The solution here is for Mahit to need the current emperor to keep his throne. That way, we can use her existing motivation, which is already quite strong. For this to work, Mahit’s offer must be something only the current emperor would accept. Strangely, the book already has an option like this. As part of her investigation, Mahit discovers that the emperor was planning to preserve his memories and personality via an imago machine, something he would need Lsel’s help with.
That seems like the obvious answer, but instead it was used as a morality tale about extending one’s life at the expense of others, since the emperor would have needed to supplant the personality of his child-clone in order for it to work. If I was hired to edit this book, I’d say the story has enough messages already; just revise things so the clone in question is a blank slate with no consciousness of its own.
It’s also possible to play up the romantic feelings from Mahit’s predecessor. This could provide a motivation, even if it’s not very rational. Be warned, though: readers tend to get frustrated when the main character acts directly counter to their own interests, no matter how many emotional justifications a storyteller adds.
2. Dr. Yueh: Dune
An interesting facet of Dune’s opening storyline is the dramatic irony. Thanks to Frank Herbert’s omniscient narrator, readers know that the noble House Atreides is walking into a trap set by the dastardly House Harkonnen, even as the Atreideses remain blissfully unaware. We also know how this trap will be sprung: a traitor within House Atreides named Dr. Wellington Yueh.
The Atreideses would never suspect Yueh because he has imperial mental conditioning that makes it impossible for him to be a traitor. However, the diabolical Harkonnens have a master plan to beat the conditioning: kidnap Yueh’s wife and threaten to kill her unless he does what they say. Huh. If that kind of mundane extortion tactic works on Yueh, it’s hard to say what kind of protection his conditioning is supposed to offer.
But never mind that, we’re talking about Yueh’s motivation today. You’d think it would be fairly simple: Yueh is willing to betray the house he loves because he cares about his wife even more. But then we find out two things. 1: The Harkonnens have already killed Yueh’s wife. 2: Yueh is pretty confident his wife is already dead, even though he hasn’t seen a body. Wait, what? Until this point, it was easy to assume that the Harkonnens had offered proof she was alive somehow, even if the proof was forged.
Instead, it’s revealed that Yueh is doing all of this on the miniscule chance that his wife is alive. He’s never once asked the Harkonnens to prove it, which would be a super easy way to call their bluff. It really seems like Yueh would know the basics of hostage negotiating in a setting overflowing with courtly intrigue. Ever weirder, Yueh sets up an elaborate revenge plot that he plans to use in case the Harkonnens are lying, but he sets it in motion before finding out, and he has no way of calling it off if they’re telling the truth.
This is bad enough simply for how nonsensical it is, but it gets worse. Yueh is clearly meant to be a sympathetic character, something we know from both Yueh’s own thoughts and how the omniscient narrator talks about him. But once we learn why he’s doing this, he no longer seems like a tragic figure. He has an easy way out that he completely ignores. At best, he’s frustratingly incompetent. At worst, he seems to want the Atreideses destroyed.
How to Fix It
The main issue is that Dune overcomplicates what should be a simple plot point. The first important revision is to get rid of Yueh’s supposed conditioning. It’s not clear what Herbert thinks the conditioning is even meant to do. Instead, the Atreideses can be confident of Yueh’s loyalty because he’s served the family for decades.
Next, Yueh’s wife should either be alive or the Harkonnens should have some convincing way of making it seem like she’s alive. The former is easier, but with scifi technology, the latter is also an option. To further strengthen Yueh’s motivation, he should have good reason to think that the Harkonnens will keep their word and let his wife go free. Perhaps he has some kind of blackmail info that he can threaten to release if they harm her, or he thinks he’s successfully bribed her jailers.
Once all that’s in place, then the Harkonnens can demonstrate their evil brilliance by foiling Yueh’s safeguards and betraying him anyway. Once it’s clear all is lost, Yueh launches his final attempt at revenge, this time as a desperate man with nothing left to lose rather than someone who really should have seen this coming.
3. Gideon: Gideon the Ninth
Tamsyn Muir’s Hugo-nominated debut novel is all about the irreverent Gideon and her space fantasy adventures. It starts with Gideon trapped as an indentured servant to the Ninth House, a house she hates with all her being and is constantly trying to escape. Within the first chapter, Gideon attempts yet another escape but is foiled by the trickery of Harrow, the Ninth House leader.
That’s when the motivation problem starts. Shortly after tricking Gideon out of her escape attempt, Harrow offers Gideon a job. You see, Harrow’s been invited to become a Lictor, a kind of super powerful necromancer, and to do this she’ll need someone good at sword fighting to protect her. Gideon happens to be the best fighter the Ninth House has ever produced, so it’s obvious what Harrow gets out of this.
Less obvious is what Gideon gets. Harrow makes extremely vague promises of freedom, wealth, and glory, which is a huge red flag. We’ve already seen that Harrow is really sneaky and also that she hates Gideon, so Gideon has every reason to suspect a trap. The only guarantee Gideon has is that a high-ranking retainer asks Harrow to keep her word, but we have no reason to think that would matter to someone as blatantly cruel as Harrow. The conditions of Harrow’s offer are also unclear. Does Gideon get what was promised only if Harrow successfully becomes a Lictor, or does she just have to go? Does Harrow have to survive? It’s not clear if Gideon knows, and the reader certainly doesn’t.
At first, this weak motivation isn’t a huge issue because of the book’s high novelty. It’s easy to get lost in Gideon’s exploration of a haunted space castle, even if it’s not clear why she’s doing this or what the stakes are. But as the plot heats up and the physical danger escalates, the problem is harder to ignore. Once Gideon is risking her life to help Harrow, someone she hates, it’s important for readers to understand why.
To make matters worse, Gideon rarely, if ever, thinks about her reasons for going along with Harrow’s scheme. Not only does that make it difficult to remember what the original deal even was, but it also gives the impression that Gideon doesn’t care. Eventually, Gideon and Harrow stop hating each other and reconcile to the point that Gideon’s motivation could simply be helping her friend, but that doesn’t happen until far too late in the book.
How to Fix It
The main issue with Gideon is a lack of clarity. It’s not clear what Gideon is getting out of this or why she trusts that she’ll actually get it. Fixing that is the top priority. The agreement should be clear, and Gideon should occasionally think about it so the reader doesn’t forget. As for trust, I would have another member of the Ninth House, someone Gideon has faith in, promise to fulfill the terms if Harrow tries to weasel out of them.
As to what those terms should be, I think it would fit best with this book if Gideon just had to make sure that Harrow lives through the Lictor trials, rather than having the reward be contingent on success. That would allow for the slower exploration sequences that are currently a major asset to the story, since Gideon wouldn’t have to get too involved until Harrow starts risking her life. That should be enough motivation to hold us over until the two of them reconcile.
4. Aldrich Killian: Iron Man 3
Explaining the motivation of Iron Man 3’s villain is a challenge, both because the film’s story is incredibly complicated and because Killian actually has two motivations that aren’t at all related. First, there’s his practical motivation. His company invented a supersoldier drug, presumably for money, but then some of the test subjects started exploding. Instead of covering that up and quietly working to refine the drug, Killian creates an entire terrorist network, complete with a fake leader called the Mandarin, as a cover for his constantly exploding test subjects. Then, to cover for this terrorist organization, Killian has to kill the president and replace him with a lackey. Whew.
Then there’s Killian’s personal motivation, which is that Tony Stark once scheduled a business meeting with him and then didn’t show up. This apparently set Killian on the path to evil, somehow, but it’s mostly there to justify why this guy is an Iron Man villain in the first place. Otherwise, nothing he does is part of Iron Man’s wheelhouse. Even with this weak backstory, Killian and his fake Mandarin still seem much more like Captain America bad guys, since they keep doing terrorism on America.*
This gives us a villain with some of the weakest motivation I have ever seen. His practical motivation has him escalating to a coup of the United States rather than just keeping his test subjects in a controlled environment, which is a much easier way to make money. For that matter, he could probably just sell the drug as is and get a great payout. Even with the possible explosions, it’s hard to imagine that various militaries wouldn’t be interested.
The only justification we’re given in the film is the implication that Killian just likes being a villain because of that one time Tony Stark stood him up. Every time I type that, it gets harder to believe that the writers of a 200-million-dollar film thought it was a good idea. This is a big part of why the Mandarin reveal is so disappointing. The film builds up a big bad, then pulls the curtain back only to reveal… some guy.
How to Fix It
This one is trickier than I first imagined, largely because it’s surprisingly difficult to come up with a villain Iron Man has reason to fight unless you’re willing to push the stakes up to a worldwide threat. Most of the other Avengers have jobs or titles that oblige them to solve problems by kicking ass, but Tony is just a really rich guy. He doesn’t have any particular drive to fight bad guys, especially in a world with other superheroes.
The most obvious motivation for an Iron Man villain is someone who wants to take over Tony’s business because of some personal grudge from the past, which is what the previous two Iron Man films did. The third film only went halfway, keeping an extremely weak personal grudge but ditching the business angle.
Given the MCU’s constraints, the best option I can imagine is to stick with the personal grudge motivation but tie it to something that happened in one of the previous films. Since the psychological fallout of Tony’s near death in the first Avengers film is already a major element of Iron Man 3, let’s use that as the source of our grudge.
When Tony takes the nuke through the portal in Avengers, he wipes out most of the alien fleet, but perhaps not all of it. If a handful survive, they could easily be tossed aside by Thanos, so they head to Earth to get revenge on the man who killed all their comrades. Since Tony is too well-protected for a direct attack, they start by destroying his Stark Industry assets. From there, they can invent the Mandarin as a cover for their operation so the other superheroes think it’s just normal terrorism.*
If we want the reveal of the bad guy being someone Tony knows, we can establish that one of the aliens has shapeshifting powers or a holo disguise and infiltrated Stark Industries as a spy. That’s not really necessary, but it could work as a nice extra.
5. Sephiroth: Final Fantasy VII
The seventh Final Fantasy game is absolutely full of characters with weak motivation. One guy joins your party because you stole his plane, and a teenage ninja signs up because she thinks a team of heavily armed adventurers will be easy marks for robbery. Makes you wonder why she doesn’t just rob one of the many stores that both have way more stuff and aren’t bristling with weapons. There’s also a weird cat robot who demands to come with you because he told you a weird fortune and wants to see how it turns out. Sure.*
That’s not a huge surprise when it comes to playable characters, since in video games, game mechanics like adding a new party member often come before the story. But it is a surprise that this weak motivation also extends to the game’s big villain: a former supersoldier named Sephiroth. At first, it’s not clear why this white-haired swordboy is running around killing people, just that he has some kind of shared backstory with two of the main characters, Cloud and Tifa. Then the good guys all get together for a backstory exposition dump, and we find out what made Sephiroth turn evil.
It seems that a few years earlier, Sephiroth was on a mission to take out some monsters around Tifa and Cloud’s hometown. In these flashbacks, Sephiroth is polite, professional, even compassionate. That’s clearly supposed to be a surprise given how evil he is in the present. But then Sephiroth discovers a horrible secret: he was created from the cells of an Ancient, a (mostly) extinct group of people who are somehow a separate species like elves but also the ancestors of the setting’s modern humans. I don’t entirely get it. As best I can tell, the idea is that some Ancients stopped doing whatever made them Ancients, and so they became humans, while Sephiroth’s cell donor was supposedly a full Ancient.*
Anyway, he then does a bunch of research and discovers that in the distant past, there was a split between the Human-Ancients and the Ancient-Ancients. He’s very vague on the details, but somehow this led to a disaster in which most of the Ancient-Ancients were killed. After expositing all this, Sephiroth goes full murder mode, burning down Tifa and Cloud’s hometown, seemingly just for the heck of it. He’s a bad guy now, you see.
The problem here is cause and effect. Sure, it would be a shock for Sephiroth to find out he’s the genetic successor to a long-extinct group, and researching the split between humans and Ancients might create some resentment, but how does that motivate him to mass murder? Is he getting revenge? Even if he held the townsfolk responsible for what happened in the distant past, it doesn’t sound like humans were even responsible for the disaster; they just happened to be around for it. All we’re left with is a vague implication that finding out about his past turned Sephiroth into a murderer, and that just doesn’t fit with how humans* work. The final possibility is mind control, since there is another villain who could hypothetically be manipulating Sephiroth at this point. Not only is there no indication of that, but it would also be really unsatisfying as an answer. That level of mind control can be used to justify anything.
How to Fix It
Sephiroth’s heel-face turn has three main requirements: he has to start off good, he has to destroy Cloud and Tifa’s hometown, and he has to do it within a relatively short flashback sequence. In an ideal scenario we’d spend more time on such a drastic character arc, but since storytellers don’t always have a choice in these matters, we’ll try to work within the game’s existing constraints.
The critical thing is giving Sephiroth a reason to destroy the town other than finding out some unusual facts about his ancestry. There has to be something more on the line. Fortunately, FFVII has already provided us a solution. You see, in addition to all the exposition I already gave you, there’s also an advanced reactor nearby that houses the preserved Ancient from which Sephiroth was made.* Sephiroth views this being as his mother, and it’s heavily implied that the remains are actually still alive.
All we have to do is engineer a plot where the reactor malfunctions and is about to destroy the hibernating Ancient. It’s perfectly believable that Sephiroth would try to rescue his “mother,” at which point he discovers that the only option is to vent the reactor into the nearby town. Even a few days ago that would have been unthinkable, but it’s now believable that Sephiroth would do something extreme to save what he believes is the last Ancient other than himself.
This way, Sephiroth isn’t turning evil just for the sake of it, but he’s still committing an evil act that puts him well over the moral event horizon. From there, it’s easy to imagine him rationalizing what he did: he’s superior to these puny humans, so why should he care if a few died? That’s how he gets to the diabolically evil villain we see in the game’s present timeline, and it doesn’t require a drastic personality change like someone was flipping a switch.
When crafting a motivation for your characters, think about what it is you’ll need those characters to do in your story. A character’s motivation should scale with the cost of their actions, whether that cost is physical, emotional, or moral. A character who risks life and limb must have a powerful motivation, as does a character who turns against their friends and family. If motivation doesn’t match action, a character will seem contrived and unrealistic.
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