Your Characters and their Motivations

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Six Distinctions in Motivating Characters


Ask “Why does this character commit this action?” and write down all your answers.  Are they author reasons (because it’ll help the book) or character reasons (because it’ll help the character)?

EXAMPLE:  Why does this character go to Nevada?
Author answers:
Because she needs to learn that she can trust the hero.
Translates to: Because -I- need her to learn that…
Because she needs to be in Nevada at Christmastime so she can run into Emily.  Translates to: Because -I- need her to be in Nevada…
Because she needs to do something dramatic.
Translates to: Because -I- need an action scene right here before the reader nods off entirely.

Character answers:
Because she is curious about the hero’s past, and he mentioned once he had friends in Reno.
Because she wants a quickie divorce, and Nevada is the place to get it.
Because she wants to escape from the sheriff, and Nevada is outside his jurisdiction.

While it’s good to know your motivation for including the action, that’s not sufficient.  The reader has to believe that this character has her own reason for taking this action.

  2. Distinguish between PRO-ACTIVE and REACTIVE:

Pro-active:  Motivating movement TOWARDS something.  Success is a pro-active motivation because it draws the character forward towards itself.

Reactive:  Motivating movement AWAY from something.  Guilt is a reactive motivation because it propels the person away from itself.

This affects the trajectory of the plot.With a pro-active motivation, you will probably want to divert the protagonist with a new motivation or intense conflict– you don’t want a straight line between wanting and getting!

With a reactive motivation, you might have a boomerang trajectory– whatever she’s running from, you force her to face near the end of the book (perhaps in the crisis).

Most motivations have both a negative and a positive aspect.  For example, the obverse of revenge is justice– related, but likely to cause much different actions.

Guilt can motivate positive behavior, such as apologizing and making amends; the obverse, suppression or denial of guilt, will motivate negative behavior such as self-deception and victim-blaming.  (And an excess of guilt can cause a sense of failure and inadequacy.)

A protagonist might move during the course of the book from the negative aspect to the positive one, demonstrating growth and maturity– or, conversely, from a positive (justice) to a negative aspect, to show the corrosive effect of rage, for example.

  3. Distinguish between EXTERNAL and INTERNAL:

External motivations tend to be more or less universal.  Internal motivations are what will individualize your character.  Most of us want success; the question is why?  Your internal motivation for wanting success (to win the love of your father) might be different from mine (to get revenge against those who scorned me).  Look to gradually revealing the internal motivation through the events of the plot… the character, by the way, is seldom fully conscious of an internal motivation.

Some Categories of Motivation

Bold-face is obverse aspect (stuff in parens = goals, effects, or other association)

  • Survival/safety; Fear of the world (food, water, escape from danger)
  • Physical comfort; gluttony (shelter, warmth, good food, health)
  • Pleasure; hedonism (sex, great food, culture, games)
  • Dominance; tyranny (power, social standing, competition, respect)
  • Acquisitiveness; greed (wealth, materialism, collecting, excellence)
  • Curiosity; voyeurism (learning, searching, investigating)
  • Mastery; perfectionism (excellence, conquest, discipline, achievement)
  • Reproduction; profligacy (children, creativity, family-building)


  • Autonomy; isolation (self-sufficiency, freedom, non-confinement)
  • Affiliation; conformity (security, cooperation, loyalty, clan)
  • Love; lust/ownership (connection, passion, sex, mirroring, approval, giving)
  • Revenge; justice (righting wrongs, recognition of grievance, vengeance)
  • Guilt; denial of guilt (responsibility, shame, punishment, redemption, forgiveness)
  • Identity; self-centeredness (self-esteem, self-knowledge, self-protection)
  • Surcease; conflict avoidance (peace, escape from anxiety, death)
  • Spirituality; fetishism (religion, transcendence, transformation)
  • Growth; decay, aging (learning, maturation, wisdom)
  • Ambition; insecurity/anxiety (fear of failure, inferiority, stress)
  • Vindication; rationalization (success, proving self, apology)

The primary external motivation: Self-preservation
The primary internal motivation: Self-protection

4. Distinguish between BACKSTORY and STORY:

Backstory is everything that happened before the story begins.

Story is the actual action of the book.

Motivation (especially internal motivation) often comes out of backstory… but the story itself plays out the intermixing of motivation and conflict.

So: Be wary of motivation confined mostly to the internal or to backstory.  Give the character something immediate to inspire action today. There should be a present-day event to inspire the manifestation of the internal or past motivation– for example, Heroine inherits the house where her mother committed suicide and decides to start a new life by renovating it.  The external motivation is that “starting a new life”; the internal motivation might be to exorcise her mother’s ghost or to deal with the trauma of the suicide.  The internal motivation comes out of the backstory, but the external motivation is in the here-and-now of the story.

And motivation, especially that created in the past, doesn’t have to remain static.  It can change (and should change) because of the events of the plot.

Consider the protagonist’s journey through the book.  What will she learn or experience or become not by intention, but because of the story events?  If she must learn, “No man is an island,” then she might be moving at least part of the way from autonomy to affiliation.  This will involve a shift from the original motivation.  Make sure there’s sufficient provocation for this shift, and thus for her development.

Look here also for the book’s theme– what message does the journey create?

The journey takes place not in the backstory… but in the story.

5.  Distinguish between GOAL and MOTIVATION.

The goal is like the flower… the motivation is the roots.

The goal is the outward manifestation of the motivation.
It is concrete, measurable, and specific.
You don’t know when you’ve fulfilled the motivation: “I want success” isn’t measurable– what’s success?
But you know when you’ve achieved a goal:
“I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list–” That’s measurable. You’ll know when you reach it.

Just keep in mind that while the goal is the external manifestation of the motivation, the connection is not always a straight or clear one.  You can have a goal that is destructive and against your true motivation– “looking for love in all the wrong places” is an example.
Or you can have a laudatory goal for a selfish or twisted motivation– “I want to be first in my class to show my father up!”

Motivation is the past.
Goal is the future.
Conflict is the present.

6.  Distinguish between MOTIVATION and ACTION:

Remember that motivation exists to inspire the character to make choices and take actions.  If you’ve been told your protagonist is “too passive”, it’s likely what’s lacking is motivation that leads to action.  Evaluate whether most of the events “just happen” to her, or whether she causes them (intentionally or not) because of the external or internal motivation.

Every action, however small, should be motivated.  If the motivation is obvious, then you might not have to show it (we assume that she’s running from that tiger for survival).
But if the motivation isn’t clear, go back and make sure you’ve put one in there.  You can always invent some new event that will increase the pressure on the character if you need her to act in an uncharacteristic or dangerous way.

For example, if this is a very very honest woman, and you need her to break into a man’s office and steal his files, then you have to consider what on earth would be important enough to cause her to violate her own morality… and give her that motivation.  Maybe the man is blackmailing her beloved grandmother, or has threatened to destroy documents proving that she is innocent of murder.  Just make sure it all fits– reinventing motivation means, very often, reinventing the plot.

Compare the external (obvious) motivation to the goal and/or actions.  If they don’t match, an internal motivation is probably in force. What hidden desire or fear or value is influencing actions?
An alternative reason for motivation/action mismatch: You’re trying to make an original character act in stereotypical ways.

And keep this in mind:
Heroism and villainy are in the ACTION, not the MOTIVATION.  Heroes DO heroic things, they don’t just intend to do them.  And villains do bad things even if they have the best of intentions.

List all the actions of your character, stripped of motivation.  Do they add up to mostly positive?  Is there at least one true act of heroism (extraordinary courage, discipline, effort, sacrifice, compassion)?  If not, you just don’t have a hero (or heroine), even if the motivation was to save the world and all the whales too.

Sacrifice of the original motivation is the greatest heroic act.  Give the character a good reason, though, such as a more worthy motivation.

What if the motivation and action and character don’t all fit?
Change the action to fit the motivation.
Change the motivation to fit the action.
Change the character to make the motivation or action more fitting.
Add a deeper motivation… and remember to reveal it at some point!

Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley


About Ms. N's Rhyme and Reason

Hi, In the beginning was the word. Hence begins the history of humankind, in all domains of evolution. The thriving of civilizations has depended on how articulate were their teachers- the ones who descended with the learned art to their offspring generations. This phenomenon of transmitting of genetic code of learning has been at the heart of my inspiration to teach. This art somehow has transformed into a mantra for me, and it has never ceased to amaze me. Although to become a perfect teacher one might take a lifetime, but if one tries to be perfect, one negates the reason to experiment and fail. Hence, I may have faltered in some of my approaches, but my aspiration has been to try rectifying the short-coming, to connect again with the subject-matter and my pupils, to demystify the intended outcome, to enthuse the learners again, and to keep the cycle going.
This entry was posted in AS/A Level Language, Paper 2 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Your Characters and their Motivations

  1. Sam Joines says:

    I want to favorite this and come back to it as I am editing my nano novel later this month. Thank you, I love this.


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