What is Character Motivation?
When discussing character motivations, it comes down to why your character did what they did…
What if you watched a murder mystery, and when they asked the suspect why they committed the crime, they simply shrugged or said, I felt like it?
It would be so anti-climactic you’d probably be a little peeved at the lackluster ending.
The thing is, we want to know why things happen. Why did the bad guy do it? Even amid reality, watching the news, we might hear a tragic story about something horrific. We’re left to question why they did something that we simply can’t fathom.
Motivation is the basis of why we do things, whether those actions are big, small, good or bad.
When you look at motivation, it brings up another important element in your story—conflict. Each character should have an internal conflict (think emotional) and an external conflict (something stopping them).
We do things for a reason.
Do you want something? Do you want to avoid something? This can be a thought, a situation, or a person.
Take an idea as simple as avoiding going to the dentist because you have a fear of the dentist. Maybe you avoid breaking up with a boyfriend because you don’t want to deal with the emotional fall out. Or you take a back road instead of the highway to avoid rush hour traffic. The point is, we do things for reasons. There’s a purpose in our actions.
You avoid answering the phone because you don’t want to talk to a telemarketer. You go to a favorite restaurant because you enjoy the atmosphere or food. You apply for a promotion because you want to move up in your career and maybe feel better about yourself or want others to see your progress. We all have our own reasons.
Have you ever quickly cleaned your house because your mother-in-law was coming over? Why? Exactly.
What’s the importance of character motivation?
Understanding a character’s motivation makes it relatable…believable. If you read a murder mystery and found out the bad guy killed the victim due to greed, trying to keep a secret under wraps, or for revenge, it’s easier to accept the story.
If it’s because he didn’t like that the character drove a green Toyota and no other reason, it doesn’t make sense. We want actual reasons for why people do things. There’s a natural curiosity to know more.
Yes, it simplifies things, but that’s the basis of character motivation.
Motivations don’t have to be 8-year long stories of something from a criminal past, but they do have to fit the story.
What was the driving force for your character’s reaction? Did the output match the reasoning?
Is it a basic human need? An emotion? Or something that triggered them that had been building up inside?
Untangle the pieces of your character, revealing more about who they are, what their flaws are, and how they react under pressure. Does it make sense for your character to act a certain way? What inspires them? Moves them? Angers them?
How do I show a character’s motivation?
Don’t confuse goal for motivation. A goal is a task. Motivation is the reason for the action, good or bad? Does it matter? What matters is understanding the why behind your character’s choices.
By putting your character in a stressful situation, it allows you the chance to show how they normally react under pressure. This helps your reader see what they do, when they do it, and what it looks like.
By showing the character reacting in a scene, your reader better understands who they are. It deepens the story and gives it more meaning. Motivations are the undertones.
THIS IS TELLING:
She was angry her date was late—again. (You told us she was angry) He finally pulled up into the driveway. He got out of his car and knocked at the door (telling… notice how there are only steps that he took, but nothing attached to them, no emotion, no sense of mood?) She made him wait (We are simply told that she made him wait without any other details. It’s hard to get into a scene when you’re only told what happens.)
Now, let’s repeat that with showing – it adds a layer of depth.
THIS IS SHOWING:
She stomped across the floor. Her heels clicked like horse hooves on the travertine tile. It wasn’t the first time he’d been late, and probably wouldn’t be the last. The headlights of his car illuminated the window as he turned into the driveway.
She ignored his knocking for the first few minutes, even as the pounding increased. Leaning against the door, her arms were crossed tightly over her chest, but she didn’t say a word. Served him right. It was his turn to wait.
In showing, you understand the motivation, and see it play out. You know why they are doing something. Take advantage of these moments to showcase your character’s strengths and weaknesses, and to make them relatable. When we know why a character does something—what motivates them, the story reads better and the reader is more involved.
Don’t just show us what the character does, help us understand why they are acting the way they are. Motivation is the reason behind their actions or thoughts.