Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. In this post, we share the seven qualities of compelling character motivations.
If we want our characters to be believable, and, more importantly, to make sense in a fictional universe, we have to work on what motivates them.
When somebody commits a crime the first thing everybody wants to know is why they did it. Sometimes, there seems to be no good reason for their actions.
In the real world, people can do random things without a reason, but in a story, your characters should have a reason. People read fiction because it is not like real life. They want a story that makes sense.
What Is Motivation?
According to Oxford Dictionaries it is: ‘A reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.’
As F.Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Character is plot, plot is character.’
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we are motivated by the following:
- Physiological Needs
- Safety Needs
- Love & Belonging
We can use this pyramid to work on our characters’ motivations.
- Do your characters have food, water, and shelter?
- Are they safe from bodily harm?
- Do they feel as if they belong and are loved?
- Do they feel as if they have accomplished something?
- Can they achieve their dreams?
If they do not have these, their motivations could work like this:
- If your characters need food and shelter, it will be easy to work out a motivation for them.
- If somebody wants to harm them, they will be motivated to become safe.
- If somebody threatens their sense of belonging, they could be motivated to get revenge.
- If they have an ambition to become something, this could be their driving and compelling motivation for a story, especially in a plot of ambition.
- If their ability to achieve their dreams is taken away, they may be motivated to find a way to actualise them in another way.
The Two Types Of Motivation
We have external and internal motivations. These tie in perfectly with story goals. Every fictional character needs a physical story goal. This physical story goal leads them to their abstract story goal. Read our post: The Story Goal – The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure
Like goals, motivations have two layers – the external motivation and the internal motivation. Like good story goals, motivation works better if your character has an external motivation that strengthens the internal motivation.
External Motivations Have Everything To Do With Survival
- Finding food, warmth, shelter.
- Protecting yourself and your loved ones.
- Escaping an abuser.
- Becoming financially secure.
- Saving your environment.
Internal Motivations Have Everything To With Your Psyche
- Finding love.
- Making friends.
- Learning something.
- Atoning for past sins.
- Getting revenge.
- Living up to expectations.
- Becoming confident.
To make them work together, your character could be motivated to escape an abusive relationship (external) which motivates them to want to become more confident (internal).
The 7 Qualities Of Compelling Character Motivations
Now that we understand motivations, how can we make sure the ones we use in our stories are compelling?
Use this checklist to help you out.
Our Motivations Work If We:
- Make Them Complex: Make sure there is an element of the external and internal in each motivation. For example, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is motivated to volunteer for her sister, because she wants to protect her (external) and because she could not live with herself if she did not (internal).
- Make Your Characters Have More Than One: Make sure your characters have a few motivations. This can lead to interesting character developments, plot twists, and setbacks along the way. For example, Katniss is motivated to save her sister, but then her motivation changes to needing to kill, because she will die if she does not.
- Make Them Change: Once one motivation has yielded a result, change the motivation to carry the story to its conclusion. For example, when Katniss has the opportunity to win the games and save Peeta, she takes it, because she has feelings for him.
- Make Them Rational (& Irrational): Most of our motivations should be thought through and decided in a rational manner. It’s good to show how human your character is by throwing in an irrational motivation or two. For example, Katniss makes mostly rational decisions. She has to win, but she takes risks for Rue and Peeta.
- Make Them Believable: We need to empathise with characters. This means their motivations have to be credible. For example, we know that Katniss will do anything to save her sister and to win the games to get back to her family.
- Make Them Susceptible To Nurture ( & Nature): We are our past. Your characters need to bring their upbringings, and their prejudices and fears into their motivations. For example, Katniss has had to look after her mother and sister after her father’s death. She has learned how to hunt and provide for them. She can be ruthless.
- Make Them Matter: If you want a great story, make sure your character has a worthy motivation. It has to matter. For example, Katniss has the worthiest of all motivations. She wants to look after somebody she loves and whom she could not live without.
You can even use the deadly sins to help you with motivations. Read: Use The 7 Deadly Sins To Strengthen Your Antagonist’s Motives
If you’re looking for a great list of motivations to give you some ideas, click here: Motivation Index
© Amanda Patterson
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