A Guide to Character Motivation

A Guide to Character Motivation

No joke, Padawan, I sat down to write a blog post and I was like “characters!” And I was all excited because out of everything, characters are my favorite. But then I was staring at my blank screen and was like… dude… where do I start?

Characters are so much more complicated than a single post could ever possibly explore. Seriously! So then I was like all sad, because I was thinking I couldn’t write what I wanted to and it was terrible! Then I had an epiphany. I’ll just do like several posts, all about different aspects of character. I was like so proud of myself. #truth 😂

So today, in this first post about character, we’ll talk about character motivations!

A believable character motivation is probably one of the best things you can give your character to make them seem real, because every living person has incentives that drive them. Some are super simple, like needing food or water or sex, while some can be complicated, like solving world hunger because they went hungry as a child and now can’t stand to see food wasted or to see others suffer from hunger (aka Christian Grey in 50 Shades).

Remember have your character do something

First, let’s define motive. The dictionary defines motive as ‘a reason for doing something.’ Simple, isn’t it? Motive is a character’s purpose or intent when he takes action, their incentives. Every motivation changes the story, for better or worse.

It’s a complicated beast that revises all the information that came before and comes after. Through the lens of motivation, events that readers thought meant one thing now mean something completely different. Therefore, you must make sure your character’s motivations are defined.

If you can’t tell readers what your character’s motivations are, they’ll come up with something themselves. And that, Padawan, is dangerous! Pure “Danger Will Robinson, danger” territory. Because they’ll assume something simple, shallow, and obvious. That can make your wonderfully complex character instantly more flat. Or worse, cliché.

Cringe.

If you want your character to be more believable, more real, then give them more complex and even (stay with me now…) contradictory motives. That’s real life. Some of us have such wildly contradictory motives that it’s scary! The contradiction between war and peace, love and hate, man and nature.

The wonders of fiction are that you can take your characters deeper and deeper. We can see into their minds, their thoughts, feelings, plans, and reactions. A writer can shift between one motive and another, only to go deeper and deeper, allowing the reader to discover motives even the writer didn’t know they had. That’s pure magic.

There is a cost, however, one that you must be aware of. The discovery of motive always requires exploration of character thoughts, either through dialogue or actions. This is the territory where additional facts (motive) are explained. But let this be a caution to you, a character who endlessly examines their motivations will become repetitive and boring. Which is why you’ve got to balance your action with reaction.

Motive can be explained right on the page “Bob wants to find Sarah’s killer,” or “the Fae king needs to find who stole his crown.” See that, simple. Spelled out. Explained. That leaves no room for the reader to be confused or lost about what is motivating the character. This is most evident in some genres, and even expected. Think of the detective stories. It would be totally strange to have a main character with the motive of planting the world’s best garden, or building the best tower. With true crime or mystery stories, it’s a given the motivation would be solving the crime, bringing the guilty to justice…not finding the perfect pancake.

But what about when it’s not spelled out? Action, my friend, action.

Action reveals true motive. This can get interesting when you combine this with an unreliable narrator, because an unreliable narrator leaves the readers on their toes, and they’ve got to dig deeper to uncover motive and their truth. But action always reveals true motive. Think of the character who saves the damsel instead of saving himself, or the heroine who fights for what is right.

Actions!

One really cool thing is that motivation can easily be shown through dialogue, which is one reason why dialogue is so much more gripping and interesting than just exposition. Through dialogue, your readers can learn everything there is to know about your character and their motivations. This is especially important in those reaction scenes, the scenes that come after a big upset, facing the conflict, or a plot point.

Now this is where things get a little tricky, because characters on a page are made up, they’re fake, they’re not real (though I wish this wasn’t the case sometimes, and I totally want an AI trained on some of these amazing characters. Just imagine that!)

But, to readers, despite being just words on paper, they can appear to be fully realized humans under the right circumstances. However, one of the fastest ways to break that illusion is to have your hero doing something without motivation, or with the wrong motivations (contrary to what you’ve previously shown). Instant breakage, no more suspension of disbelief.

The reader will realize/remember that the entire thing is fake, and this breaks the immersion and sense of flow.

It happens far too often Padawan, and it’s a terrible thing.

So a character must stay true to themselves, and their core motives through the entire story. That’s not to say that they can’t change; on the contrary, character motives can change throughout the story as new information is uncovered. But it must be clear to the readers, and it must progress along a logical line.

So, Bob can’t suddenly decide in the middle of Act 2 to kill everyone who drinks a double whip Frappuccino with extra foam if nothing was revealed earlier leading into that. But over the course of the book, as information is exposed, and he processes that information, he can slowly change his motives, until he’s known as the Double Whip Frap Killer.

Okay, let’s get a little technical, but stay with me, because it deals with the above idea: mass reasoning vs. individual reasoning.

Sounds like some term you’d hear in like Psych 101, right? Basically, it means the reasons for a particular action are more believable when they are what the masses (or the majority) of people would do in that situation. They aren’t necessarily believable because a few scattered individuals may have done things that way.

What does that mean in terms of story? Of fictional characters and their motivations? Let’s go with weird, cause I’m a totally weird person. Ritual killing and extreme body modifications to become a god, as in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, is one good example. This is a belief that very few people would think of as a “good” motivation. So if you decide your hero is going to kill people and alter his body to become a god, you’re playing with fire, because few people think that is something they’d do. Versus like saving puppies, or volunteering at battered women’s shelters. See the difference?

But this is a little fuzzy, because you can always find a subsection of people to read certain motivations, as long as they don’t fall too far outside of popular opinion. In the romance space, think reverse harem, polygamy, doing the dirty with step-siblings, those sorts of things. But those might not fly in a traditional fantasy setting. If you pick a motivation that few people share, or “approve of” if I can use that term, but your story is otherwise aiming for mainstream, then you’re courting disaster because your average reader won’t be able to identify with the character’s motives.

So, before I leave you, Padawan, I’ll summarize. Pancakes are the best! Got it? Good.

  1. Characters must have motivation, just like any real person, and since the job of an author is to simulate real life, it’s critical.
  2. If you don’t/can’t tell a reader what your character’s motivation is, they’ll assume something simple, and that’s dangerous.
  3. Motive can be spelled outright, or hinted at through dialogue and action. In some genres the motives are pre-built in, and you risk disappointment (and poor reviews) if you deviate from that genre expectation.
  4. Dialogue is your friend, especially when describing your character’s motives.
  5. Action uncovers motive clearly.
  6. If your character does something contrary to their motives, the reader will be instantly yanked from the story faster than spotting mold on a pancake.
  7. Motives can change, but only after clear character altering moments and/or reflection.
  8. Factor in mass reasoning vs. individual reasoning. Remember to give your character motivations that are more inline with popular opinions (or at least inline with your target audience’s opinions).
  9. Eat more pancakes. Always. With lots of butter and maple syrup. #winning

That’s all folks 🙂

Thank you for joining me for my first post on character! I have no idea what I’ll do next, but I’m sure it will be equally fantastic 🤣

Now, go forth and write!

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