Justine: Fiction Fundamentals, Part 2: Character Motivation

motivationLast time in Part 1 of Fiction Fundamentals I discussed a character’s Goal…the “what” of what they want to do in your story.

This installment is about your character’s motivation: the “why.”

Let’s look back at a few goals from books/movies I discussed last time:

  • She wants to go to the ball (Cinderella)
  • He wants to defeat Voldemort (Harry Potter)
  • She wants to return home (The Wizard of Oz)
  • He wants to return to earth after being stranded on Mars (The Martian)
  • She wants to quit being a prostitute (Pretty Woman)

For each of these, we want to know why. Why does Harry Potter want to defeat Voldemort? Why does Dorothy want to return home? Why does Vivian want to quit being a prostitute?

Their motivation is why. It gives the reader (or viewer) the reason for their goal. It helps us understand the importance and urgency and determination behind the goal. A good way to figure out the motivation is to tack “because” after the goal:

  • Cinderella wants to go to the ball because technically she’s part of the family and wants to be treated as such
  • Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort because Voldemort killed Harry’s parents
  • Dorothy wants to return home because her Auntie Em is sick (or so she thinks)
  • Astronaut Mark Watney wants to return to earth because he wants to live
  • Vivian wants to quit being a prostitute because she’s dissatisfied with her life and thinks she can do better

Of goals, motivation, and conflict, Debra Dixon, author of “GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict,” asserts that motivation is perhaps the most important of the three, because it creates reader empathy for your character. It forms the emotional reason for why your character wants to achieve their goal.

When working on your motivation, consider how your character’s life will change if they don’t achieve their goal. What will happen if they fail? What will they lose? What sort of emotional hit will it have on them? If it isn’t much, then perhaps your motivation isn’t strong enough.

In the case of my character, Susannah, in Three Proposals, she wants to inherit her money because she needs it in order to sail back to Jamaica and rescue her sister from an abusive marriage. Susannah is very worried about her sister’s fate, whether she’ll survive at the hands of her nasty husband, and she’s pressed to achieve her goal for the sake of her sister, because if she doesn’t and her sister should die, Susannah would feel as though her sister’s death was her fault. That’s a pretty strong motivation.

Specificity and Urgency

As with a goal, a character’s motivation must also be specific. It’s not enough for motivation to be something vague, like “she wants to be happy.” What does that mean? Happiness for one person isn’t the same as happiness for another.

Another problem with an unspecific motivation is it can leave the reader wondering why (when, ironically, that’s the question your character’s motivation should be answering!). Why does she want to be happy? Answer THAT question with some specifics and you have your character’s motivation.

Motivation must also be urgent. Not necessarily that there’s a time clock ticking (although that may be the case, as with Mark Watney on Mars), but that if the character doesn’t act on it and achieve their goal to satisfy their motivation, something negative may happen and/or the character will be unable to achieve their goal.

With Vivian in Pretty Woman, she wants to quit prostituting herself and you hear this when she complains to Kit about wanting to do something else. She’s becoming more despondent about her fate, and hence more willing to take risks to change it.

Larger-than-Life Motivation

To help your reader empathize with your character, make their motivations larger-than-life. Something REALLY worth working towards. Garden-variety motivations are ones we all have. While we can relate, it may be hard to get excited/emotionally attached to it, because it’s something we all do.

For example, our character wants a new job because she needs a raise so she can buy a new car. It’s plain vanilla. Not exciting. Certainly not something worth reading about for 65,000 words. But if she wants a new job at Acme Company because she needs to sabotage the R&D department to avenge her father…well, that’s a bit more interesting.

However, as Deb Dixon says, you must ensure the motivation is appropriate to your character. A sixteen year-old is not going to be motivated by retirement needs, and a sixty year-old is not going to be motivated by winning prom king. If it’s not believable, your reader won’t care.

Scene-Level Motivation

Within your novel, your character has an overarching motivation that goes hand-in-hand with their story goal. But just as within each scene there are mini-goals, there are also mini-motivations.

In The Martian, Matt Damon’s character is motivated to leave Mars because he wants to live. Yet within each scene, he has other, smaller motivations. For example, he needs to grow a farm because he needs food to survive. We know this, and when (spoiler alert!) his water machine invention blows up and the side of the pod comes off, exposing him to the Martian air, we all take a big, scary breath wondering if he’ll make it. These smaller motivations are like little claws that dig into your reader and get them emotionally invested in your character. Your reader wants to keep going to find out if they’re successful.

Psychological Motivation

Oftentimes in the discussion of motivation, writers question the distinction between psychological motivation and goal-related motivation. Psychological motivation has more to do with a characters beliefs and moralities; it’s their personality, what makes them tick. Understanding this type of motivation deepens character, helps explain why a character makes a certain choice, and goes a long way towards creating character agency (which I’ll talk about on another day).

Psychological motivation can derive from childhood/life experience, personality traits, how your character learns, what they’ve observed, or their reactions to stimuli.

Without good psychological motivation, especially when a character puts himself in harm’s way, it can make the situation or character seem unbelievable and the reader will think it’s contrived. But be wary of overdoing it. You want to layer the motivations, but don’t drown your readers for fear of annoying them.

Coincidence vs. Motivation

Before wrapping up, I want to take a brief detour and make sure you’re clear on the difference between motivation and coincidence. They are not the same.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the acronym “TSTL.” For those of you who aren’t, it means Too Stupid To Live. You know this character…the girl who goes into the spooky house in her underwear and flip-flops with no weapon because she hears a scream. Um…hello…shouldn’t she call 9-1-1?

You might ask the author why they put the girl there? They may answer that in order to meet the guy who rescues her, she had to go into the house. Or she must enter the house to find the secret key or go through the portal to the other dimension.

That’s all fine and good, but her motivation for entering the house isn’t. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not believable for the reader. They’re probably wondering why she isn’t turning tail and running away! If you don’t give your characters good reasons for doing things – whether big or small – you can kiss your readers goodbye.

However, if you give the character a motivation for going into the house…for example, it’s her sister inside the house who is screaming…well, that’s a good reason for her to enter.

Summing Up

  • Your character’s motivation is the “why” behind their goal.
  • Motivation should be strong, specific, and urgent, yet must also be realistic for your character.
  • Find the character’s motivation within each scene to draw the reader in and make them care.
  • Psychological motivation isn’t the same as goal motivation, although it’s vital to giving your character depth
  • Coincidence is not the same as motivation.

Next time, we’ll be pulling goals and motivation together to talk about conflict (one of my favorite topics).

My thanks to the following resources: Debra Dixon’s “GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict,” Kristen Kieffer at shenovel.com, and theeditorsblog.net.


6 thoughts on “Justine: Fiction Fundamentals, Part 2: Character Motivation

  1. You’ve given me some great things to think about. Keefe wants to prove that she’s self-sufficient by her 25th birthday because inheriting her mother’s last painting hinges on that. And she wants the painting because she watched Mom paint it just before she died and It’s the last thing she has that was her mother’s.

    Another thing you can do is deepen motivation to raise the stakes. Once Keefe has done everything she can to get the painting, I can add another layer of motivation. Thinking maybe the painting serves some cosmic purpose, like keeping the portal of divine love open or the portal to Hell closed. Hmm. Need to think about this some more.


    • You’re absolutely right about deepening motivation to raise the stakes. On a slightly related note, something I’ll be discussing next time when wrapping up G&M to get to conflict is the character fatal flaw (I picked that up in a Margie Lawson course). That can also help raise stakes.

      I assume there’s a deeper emotional reason for Keefe wanting the painting besides the fact that her mom painted it before she died? Are there secrets in the painting that only Keefe and her mom know? Did her mom tell her the truth about heaven and hell when she painted it? Did she hint at some cosmic secret that Keefe can only unlock if she has the painting? Totally riffing here, but I think giving the painting some weight is a great way to make Keefe NEED to have it.

      In 3P, I’ve decided to take out the mystery letters of Pauline Bonaparte to the viscount and replace them with letters from her sister and her sister’s housekeeper…delivered as a packet that Susannah of course reads at once (because mail coming from the Caribbean would have been delivered like that — one lump collection), but are only revealed to the reader piece by piece. Her sister tries to fob off what’s happening, but the housekeeper tells Susannah how it is for real, which increases the urgency that Susannah get back to Jamaica as quickly as possible or she’ll end up returning for a funeral.

      I still have to reconcile that Susannah won’t actually be saving her sister at the end of this story. Perhaps she’s on the path to it, Nate buys tix to the Caribbean…not sure. Totally open to suggestions, though!

  2. Lost my comment to the vagaries of the internet! But I think I’ve got my blog post for the week, thanks to this post!

    Tangentially, I’m reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and his first step of planning a project is to ask “Why?” Motivation really does affect everything that comes later, so knowing a character’s why is so very important. I’m wrestling with that right now, and did some good thinking in my Lost Comment (-:. Now I gotta get it down before I forget . . . .

    • Glad I could help with your blog post!

      There’s so much that revolves around “why.” In a weird way, you could totally think about a character’s goal as a project…what they’ve set out in the book to do, so yes, answering that “why” is a great idea to make sure you’re giving your character reasons to do what he needs to do.

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