Character motivation is a nuance within storytelling that people often overlook. But developing it in your story will alter the impact of your narrative. Motivation helps readers better understand your characters and relate to them. So, what exactly is character motivation? It is what drives characters to make decisions. It represents the needs and desires of your characters and becomes the reasoning behind their thoughts, words, or actions. Motivation can stem from intrinsic or existential needs based on survival or emotional wellbeing. Knowing what makes your characters tick is important to every story, be it an adventure, a mystery, or a romance.
Step one: Find out what motivates people.
In his book, The Seven Longings of the Human Heart, Mike Bickell points out several things humans inherently long for:
But motivation is complex.
We also long to be enjoyed, to be whole-hearted in our ventures, and to make a lasting impact. These desires stem from several kinds of basic motivations: We all are driven by the need to survive. Having food, water, air, and shelter are the simplest motivations. But people also seek a sense of wellbeing, a desire for security and comfort. Relationships and the ability to be understood are other important motivations, as are a sense of purpose and self-fulfillment. And like any other genre, romance novels need character motivation to engage readers.
Here are some great examples.
A need for provision
In Jojo Moyes’ book Me Before You, Louisa Clark is driven by her basic need to find a new job after the cafe where she works closes. Her obligation to pay for food and the roof over her head leads to her accepting a temporary caretaker position for Will Traynor, a quadriplegic. This simple motivation develops into an incredible romance between Will and Louisa, which becomes a major plot point in the book.
A need for safety and security
In the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the protagonist, Claire Randall is transported back in time to the Scottish revolution, where she catches the eye of her husband’s villainous ancestor, Jack Randall. In order to escape Jack’s clutches, Claire is forced to marry Jamie Fraser. But Claire’s actions, driven by her need for safety and security, lead to Jamie and Claire falling in love. From there, Claire’s decisions and motivations become far more complex, as she must decide whether she will stay in the past with Jamie or try to get back to her husband in the present time.
A need for connection
In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel and Augustus demonstrate people’s drive for connection and relationships, even when struggling with their mortality. Both have been diagnosed with cancer, and while Augustus is in remission, Hazel has yet to learn whether she will survive. Still, after they meet in a support group, both teenagers feel an instant connection and want to spend time together, no matter how short that time might be.
A need for purpose
Noah’s motivation in The Notebook stems from his need to have a purpose. He completely rebuilds the house where he and Allie shared an intimate moment when they were teens in the hope she will somehow come back to him despite the fact that they haven’t seen each other in years.
A need for self-fulfillment
But a higher motivation, one that people strive for after all their more basic needs are met, is self-fulfillment. In The Painted Veil, Walter Fane has a big, beautiful house, a wife, and an excellent job as a doctor with plenty of prestige. But he is driven to find a deeper meaning to life, and so he and his wife move to a small village in China so he can fight the cholera epidemic there. Not only does he succeed in curing many of the people, he also mends the relationship between himself and his wife as both find fulfillment in their new roles.
In each of these instances, character motivations trigger events that steer the course of the story. They all play a part in what drives the characters’ decisions and behaviors, and as the characters make their decisions, the plots thicken, making the stories more compelling to readers.
Step two: Incorporate them into your book.
Make them complex
There are several key elements to developing good character motivation. As is true in real life, motives should be complex. What may seem like a simple motivation—like survival—can also be a need for connection. For instance, a man could get into a fight with someone at a bar and wind up knocking that person unconscious to avoid being stabbed (survival), but then it turns out that the fight started because the aggressor with the knife was attacking the man’s wife (connection).
Tell the backstory
Backstory is an invaluable tool when it comes to reinforcing the reasons behind characters actions. A woman could appear unhinged as she tortures a man by thwarting his attempts to date, but once you learn that the man is, in fact, her ex-boyfriend who cheated on her, the reasoning behind her behavior becomes more relatable.
Everyone has more than one motivation in life, and the same should be true for your characters. For example, say a man in your story offers to help his love interest put together the set for the high-school play she’s directing, but he also finds a sense of fulfillment in painting artistic settings and backdrops. Then he is both driven by his need to cultivate a relationship as well as his desire for self-fulfillment.
Leave room for change and growth
And character motivation can change over time. That is part of a character’s arc, and as they grow and develop, so will their reasoning. Perhaps a girl believes she wants to marry her first love and have children, but once she goes on an adventure to rescue her love, she finds the wild unpredictability of the sea has captured her heart, and she wishes to travel and find new adventures rather than settling down to have a family.
Make them real
But your characters’ motives have to be both believable and relatable: A mother might hesitate to get into a new relationship because her last one was abusive and she wants to put her child’s safety first. But that mother wouldn’t then choose to get back into that same abusive relationship because she wants her child to see what a happy marriage is like. That would be a conflicting motive.
The purpose of character motivations.
The purpose of motivation is to make your characters realistic and relatable. It drives the plot forward and invites conflict, which is necessary in capturing your audiences’ attention. All good books need strong character motivations to facilitate an engaging story. Without motivation, there is no intent behind the action, and a book without a point won’t sell. Motivations breathe life into characters, giving them purpose and drive, and that’s what readers will relate to. Those are the books that sell.
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