On (character) Motivation


One of the most common pieces of advice thrown around about writing fiction is to give characters motivation, whether in the form of a want, need, goal, dream or desire. I believe it was Ray Bradbury (MAKE THAT KURT VONNEGUT that goodness for Google) who said:

“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”


Although as per my previous post I’m going to attempt to fully understand this advice and put my thoughts below…


Why are character motivations so important?


I think primarily character motivations make fictional people more dynamic and dramatic. There is more to development than a character’s motivations but a solid goal makes us think about what the character will do in the ‘future’ (or rather further into the story), and also provides a strong indication of that characters, um, character.

Motivations also create personal stakes, as soon as we know a character wants something we have a potential plot-point of whether they get it or not. We don’t necessarily always want a character to get what they want (more on that below) but our interest is drawn to the question of whether they will.

Thirdly motivations build excellent tensions, if as a reader/watcher/player you know that different character’s motivations clash you’re going to be more on the edge of your seat than otherwise. Also by communicating character through their development you often can create tension without having to spell it out, i.e. if we know X is about to ask Y to run away and marry him, but we know Y pursuing his dream job, we will be tense about the answer. As an interesting side note I think this is how to use motivations to create a sens of not knowing what happens next in a story whereas many authors just try to keep a reader in the dark thinking a lack of information is a good way to keep a story unpredictable.


Some examples of character motivations:

I confess I tend to use movie or television examples when talking about writing techniques. This has two reasons, one is that more people will be familiar with them, and to be honest movies are often less subtle, so while not providing the best role-model they often provide a clear example.


Strong Values

In the first Avengers movie (actually one of my favourites) Captain America doesn’t really have a goal or any wants specifically, but he does have a strong moral code that he wants to follow. He wants to help and while he doesn’t necessarily WANT to fight a CGI space army or Loki this is the behaviour that fits with his values.

Incidentally this provides good examples of how motivations are typically something you want shown not told, at no point in the movie does Cap’n say ‘I have a strong need to help’ it’s shown with his actions simplified as they are for the big screen.

The Lifelong Dream

Many stories are about characters achieving a long held dream or major life goal, as this makes for a good story arc to show a character struggling towards something they want. In Pursuit of Happiness is a great example although I will add that the motivation for Will Smith’s character is more around caring for his son, rather than becoming a wealthy stock-broker.

The Evolving Need

In Lord of the Rings Frodo doesn’t start the story wanting to throw the ring into Mount Doom, he doesn’t even really know about Sauron and everything. But throughout The Fellowship of the Ring we see Frodo’s motivations build in response to the circumstances. This is more poignant in the book but it still well presented in the movie where Frodo’s motivations grow from doing a quick errand to get the ring to Rivendell to help the cause, to carrying the ring with the fellowship to finally leave the fellowship knowing its the only way to save them from the evil of the ring.

The Tainted Want

In rare occasions protagonists goals are not in line with what their audience wants. In the recent film Logan, our titular MC wants to by a boat basically so him and Xavier can escape the world and live their last few days where they can’t hurt anyone. This includes trying to avoid helping anyone else and generally being a jerk in the process. As an audience this motivation actually creates a tension of us wanting something different from the character, similar situations can be seen in romantic plot-lines where MC’s questions whether they will put career before relationships and so forth.


I’ve mostly focused on protagonist motivations here, but I might daydream about antagonists and villains for a future post!

What purpose do you think motivations have in fiction – are there other ways in which they are important? Any other examples of interesting motivation in fiction?


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