The Importance of Motivation – What drives your characters? Part 2

Part 1 looked at some of the reasons that might motivate our characters, things like backstory and emotional responses like revenge, resentment or love etc. But it’s not all down to those common emotional catalysts.
There are other factors that help create motivation for your characters, for instance:
Basic Need
This isn’t an emotion, but rather a human requirement, but it’s still a driving force for motivation. It’s the need to do something, to find something or to achieve something. It could be a need to get to the bottom of something, the need to find ourselves, the need to feel happy, the need to settle down and have a family...all these needs are motivation markers that are inherent in all characters.
It’s the simple things that writers miss, and basic needs are often overlooked.
Past Incidents & Events
The things that happen in our lives can have a positive or negative affect on us. Some incidents can scar us not just physically, but psychologically. They stay with us for a long time and can affect us in so many ways, even when we think they don’t affect us. Sometimes these events are traumatic or highly emotional for very different reasons. Everyone responds in different ways, we all react slightly differently.
Imagine what your characters might feel if something traumatic or damaging happened to them. Negative childhood memories continually reinforce behaviour in adulthood and so it provides motivation for them act in a certain way.
We all harbour some of these incidental memories. If we look closely to why we act and react to certain things, the reason often lies in some event from our childhood.
The Present
It’s not just that past that can create motivation. Incidents and events happen in the present, too, like something that happened hours or moments ago in your character’s world, something that kickstarted their actions and set them to behave in a certain way.
Just as past incidents leave their mark, present ones do, too.
While emotions provide characters with reasons to act the way they do in any given situation, there are also other factors that provide motivation. One of them is the antagonist.
The Antagonist
The antagonist – the bad guy – is normally the lynchpin to your main character’s reasons for acting the way they do, and will almost certainly involve the range of emotions already described in Part 1.
The antagonist is behind most of the conflict that occurs in a novel, so he or she will have done something to your main character – either in the past or the present - to motivate the protagonist into embarking on their journey. In that sense, the antagonist is almost like a lure to the protagonist; they are drawn to each other.
The quest for the truth is one of the strongest motivational factors in fiction writing. The need to find the truth of something or someone can make us very determined to find it, whatever the consequences. Truth and knowledge are often driving factors behind main characters finding a long lost loved one, or a valuable heirloom, or even treasure. In real life, we all strive for truth and knowledge, and it’s no different for fictional characters.
Giving your characters motivation is way of laying concrete foundations for your story. Motivation is all about knowing the following:-

  • What your character wants to achieve, or what their ultimate goal is (truth, knowledge or a basic need?)
  • Why your character wants to achieve this (emotions, a past incident, an antagonist?)
  • What might the consequences be if they do?
All these aspects provide motivation, emotion and ultimately conflict. This is why motivation plays such an important role in fiction. Writers may not realise this, but every important character in your story has motivation, they all have their reasons to be part of the story, therefore they all drive the story forward.

To summarise - what motivates characters?

  • Emotions – resentment, hate, love, revenge etc
  • Past incidents
  • Childhood events
  • Present incidents
  • Need – what does the character want and why? How will the character achieve it?
  • Antagonists
  • Truth and knowledge
At the root of motivation is a primal need. Emotional reasons, such as revenge, resentment or love are prime catalysts for motivation. Past incidents or events are catalysts. Things in the past can greatly affect what we do in the present.

Motivation is so important – without it there won’t be a character in your story for your reader to care about. That’s because most emotional aspects of motivation are shared by just about everyone on the planet – we want truth, a sense of justice, a sense of life balance, we want to get the girl or guy or our dreams, to live happily ever after, we want to exercise those demons and negative emotions or put the past to rest. We want to achieve our goals. All these things motivate us.

Make sure your characters have plenty of reason to be in your story.

Next week: Character or plot driven stories – which is best?


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