Wants, Needs, Fears – The compelling triangle of motivation

How to thread a character’s motivation together

Your character must always want something at the start of your story. We are told, time and
again, that this want must drive the character’s main goal – so it must be
something external and tangible.  Let’s
play with some example ideas in different genres.


  • Family Drama: Grace
    wants to plan the perfect family
    party for her parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary.
  • Romance: Joss is
    divorced and quits her job as a magazine editor because she wants to be a travel blogger.
  • Crime: Trevor, a
    father and sheriff, wants to find
    the man who raped a young waitress in the small town where his family


Of course, the reader must understand an individual
character’s need to do these things.
And this is something internal. While it is intangible, it should relate to their
goal. The external and internal must line up or mesh as closely as possible.

  • Grace feels she needs to do one thing right for her parents so that
    they’ll finally forgive her. She didn’t stop her younger sister from
    running away from home when they were teenagers. Her sister was never
  • Joss feels she needs to get away from her desk-bound career so that
    she will feel never feel dependent on any and be free of the city.
  • Trevor feels he needs to restore his
    family’s faith in him as a father and the town’s belief in him to bring
    the rapist to book. 

As soon as you link a want
to a need, you create a melded
sense of expectation in both the
character and the reader). This makes the character more real and emotionally
resonant. Keep in mind: this may be a misplaced sense of expectation or that
the character may not even be conscious of it until later on in the story.


To create a compelling story, Grace, Joss and Trevor cannot
get the thing they want desperately – at least not immediately. At the same as
you create hope, you must create a fear.
Fears should polarise the character’s
emotions. And you should create a villain or antagonism that embodies this fear.

  • A bossy party planner tries to take over Grace’s
    party’s arrangements; her brother is sent to drug re-hab days before the party.
    Grace feels like an even bigger disappointment and even more guilty.
  • A violent rainstorm complicates joss’s first
    trip to an exotic island. She is shut in a run-down hotel with Seth – a sexy,
    famous photojournalist. Joss feels trapped and has to rely on Seth.
  • Trevor is horrified when he begins to suspect
    that his teenage stepson he has raised since a young child may be behind the
    rape. His family is pulled apart by doubt. When word gets out about his
    stepson’s relationship to the dead girl, his superior doubts his ability to be
    impartial in the matter.

As soon a character feels fear, they react in a way that
will either make them feel in control or try an irrational solution to avoid a
fearful emotion or situation.  Their
behaviour may be unhealthy, their responses faulty or self-sabotaging. This is
what drives conflict in your story.

And finally a solution

This is the part writers often ignore, and yet, it’s often the
most important. To overcome their fears, characters must slowly (and painfully)
make the connection between their expectation
and their fears. This will control
their goal – to reinforce it with the same need, or abandon it with a hard-won
realisation. This provides the solution.

  • Grace realises her parents
    never held her responsible for her sister’s disappearance and she resented
    her sister for running away–she has to forgive herself and her sister.
  • Joss realises she can keep
    her independence when a man as self-reliant as Seth can love her while
    still allowing her freedom to be herself.
  • Trevor is even more
    committed to restoring his family when he believes his stepson’s innocence
    and trusts his own love for the teen. He is driven to win back the faith
    of the town by hunting down a homicidal drifter and the real rapist.

You can interpret the solutions in many different ways,
depending on the ending you want. However, you must deeply know what your
character wants, needs and fears to make sure they change and grow in a
credible and satisfying way for the reader.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, you will love Wedding Bells and Funeral Blues – Three Ways to Make the Most of Major Life Events in a Story.

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Caroline

    Thank you for this superb article, Mr. Ehlers. This is one of the best explanations of the complexities of character motivation that I’ve seen, and it is succinctly and cleanly delivered. It resonates with me in how I connect to my protagonist in a way that other texts on motivation have not. Thank you! I’ve shared this on Facebook. I look forward to more articles from you.

  2. Anthony Ehlers

    Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad you liked it. I wasn’t sure that it would work as I deviated slightly from other explanations and tried to bring in some psychology. I think any dialogue on the process is always a good idea though. Good luck with the writing!

  3. Derryn

    I think this is a brilliant breakdown. It’s the characters’ psychological make up that makes the reader decide if they want to invest their time and emotions reading on them (at least it is when I choose a book or watch a movie / series). Thank you for showing me a more direct way to connect with the audience. Especially in this regard.

  4. Anthony Ehlers

    Thanks, Derryn. For me, the motivation and psychological structures are what keep a story together. I hope to do more on this in future blogs.

  5. Bonisile

    From reading this my confidence increased in writerswrite that’s they can groom me to become a writer. Thank you

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