A Matter of Motivation

Hello Readers!

Has it been almost two months already? Don't worry! I've been putting the time to good use and am making steady progress towards my current project. However silent I've been here, I have made an appearance recently on foreverwriters.com. I hope y'all enjoy the post!

Our readers pick up a book wanting to believe the impossible. They yearn to leave their version of “reality” and enter a world where true love conquers inconceivable odds, where galactic empires clash with and fall to rebel alliances, and where a poor boy from London can be whisked away to a magical boarding school. If handled properly, audiences will readily embrace almost any premise. However, the gift of their suspension of disbelief is not a blank check, nor is it given freely. It must first be earned and then spent carefully.

Exactly how far you can push your reader’s suspension of disbelief varies from genre to genre. However, the absolute last place we can afford to spend this precious currency is on the believability of our characters. It is their goals, their conflicts, and their pain that drive the plot forward. It is their growth and their triumph that give the book power. It is they who define the story.

The key to making your characters feel real to your reader lies in understanding their motivations and ensuring that they act consistently with those desires. While it’s often simpler to give characters a single, defining goal, our major players need to be a bit more complex. Human beings are messy, and often contradictory in their desires. We come into any situation with a mountain of baggage and experiences that will pull on us to act and react. Our characters should be no different.

However, saying “people are complex” isn’t useful as a model for motivation. After all, how would you know what truly motivates your characters when there are hundreds, if not thousands of possible surface motivations? Personally, I like to view human motivation as driven by four fundamental factors. Everything else is either a symbol or a proxy for these big four.

1. Sex – The biological need to reproduce.
2. Survival – The need to avoid physical, emotional, or mental harm.
3. Power – The need to control oneself, others, or one’s environment.
4. Passion – The need to indulge emotions.


bankFor example, take a character who wants to steal a million dollars as part of a bank heist. While being rich may seem motivation enough, it is in actuality much too shallow and nebulous to be anything other than a front. We need to dig deeper and figure out why they want to be rich. What does wealth represent to them? Maybe they have always fantasized about diving into a pool filled with money like Scrooge McDuck. What they really seek is to sate their greed, an emotion that is strong enough to make them risk life and freedom in order to satisfy their passion. This sort of simple motivation may be enough for a spear carrier or minion character, but the protagonist and antagonist need to be more nuanced.

Character complexity comes when we start mixing and layering two or more of these fundamental motivations. For example, take a character who grew up in a desperately poor, abusive environment. To them, money isn’t about satisfying raw greed, but rather what having that money will allow them to do. It is the ability to ensure that no one can ever hurt them again, while also allowing them to live a comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. To them, the money is a symbol for both survival and power. You can make the motivation even more powerful if they act for someone other than themselves. By giving them someone to protect and provide for, you raise the stakes and form a perfect hook for your readers’ empathy.

While that’s a good start, one motivation isn’t enough for a major character. At the very least, the character needs two journeys – one inner and one outer. To make things even more interesting, we should ensure that the inner and outer journeys conflict.

What if we were to make our protagonist a single mother? She’s an experienced safe cracker, but left her criminal lifestyle behind when she got pregnant. She wants to be a good example for her child, but also needs to provide for his/her future. Let’s say that her need for fast money is so pressing that she has no legal recourse. Maybe she was recently widowed, but before he passed, her husband’s gambling addiction lead him gamble their life savings and then accrue hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to the local mob. Knee-crackers are harassing her at every turn, even going so far as threatening her baby. She must return to a life of crime and complete this job to keep her child safe. This motivation is driven by both survival (her child’s well-being) and passion (her love for her child).

However, her criminal acts also directly conflict with her need to protect her child. If she is caught, she will go to jail and her child will be given to the custody of her parents, who verbally and emotionally abused her. Furthermore, she worries that her criminal compatriots and the mob will try to use her kid against her. As her inner journey, she’ll constantly be asking herself if her actions are really what’s best for her child or if they are instead exposing him/her to more risk. By layering conflicting desires, we are making our protagonist choose between the lesser of evils, a path that is full of pitfalls and weighty choices.

Pretty good so far, but how can we step up the tension even more? We build a gap between her conscious motivation and her unconscious desires. In so doing, our character will experience stress as she tries to accomplish her goals, yet never find satisfaction or fulfillment. What if our character tells herself that she is getting into crime for her kid, but actually does so because of her profound grief? The loss of her husband and the anger at the crippling debt he left behind is pushing her to fill the void with the excitement that comes with a heist. She tells herself that she is doing this for her child when she in reality, is working to satisfy her own emotional needs. This may cause her to take unnecessary risks for the temporary pleasure and fulfillment the excitement gives her. For an even stronger emotional punch, we can make her sacrifice what she really wants, a good relationship with her child, in an unconscious attempt to satisfy her own passionate grief. The fallout from such choices can be beautiful.

It isn’t enough that our characters pursue a goal, they must do so for compelling reasons. We owe it to our readers to push past the simple answers and dig down into our character’s psyche to figure out their deep motivations. By layering our character’s goals with complex and conflicting motivations, we ensure that they appear well rounded to our reader. They, and their choices feel real and therefore put no strain on our audience’s suspension of disbelief. Therefore, we as writers must to endeavor understand our characters’ motivations better than they do themselves.

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