How to Uncover Your Character’s Motivation
At the core of every story, is the question “why?”
Why does this former businesswoman need to travel across the country in a caravan? Why does this dad decide to take up a substitute teacher job at his children’s rival school? Why does this surgeon work hard to keep the body of a frail, old man alive?
Without knowing character motivation, the actions behind the decisions of characters becomes meaningless, if not completely boring. Yes, the premise of someone quitting her job to travel across the country—and live uncharacteristically like a hippy—is interesting, but if you were to watch that movie or read that book and never discover why she decided she needed to take a cross-country road trip, you’d likely be pretty upset.
Not only would you be really upset and unhappy with the narrative, but you likely wouldn’t know why until you really thought about it. It’s not like the ending of the story being mediocre or a character being cliche—those are easy faults to spot. Instead, you’d leave the theater with an even worse feeling: why were you even watching in the first place?
Why is character motivation important?
Character motivation is important because it tells us why we are following a story at a certain point in time and it tells us why a character might be making the decisions they do. It keeps their actions consistent, even when they’re being contradictory, and ensures that even their worst decisions can be traced back to the motivation driving the plot forward. It also, most importantly, moves your plot forward!
The surgeon that works hard to save a dying old man is seemingly straightforward, albeit uninteresting, but the surgeon who does so because he is in love with that old man suddenly becomes a new story altogether. Now the motivation is clear—this person loves someone and wants more than anything to keep them alive, and whether the ending is happy or sad, we know why we’re following along.
Now, if you were to switch the motivations again so that the surgeon worked hard to keep the old man alive because they were the reason he was injured in the first place, the motivation changes to that of forgiveness and redemption. Already, as a storyteller, you can see how this forms a completely different narrative and see, as a result, why motivations are the core of any good story.
What are the different types of motivation?
There are two different types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are related to internal and external desires and conflicts.
Intrinsic motivations are often looser motivations that relate to feelings and thoughts. It often means the motivation of the character is coming from something within, such as a curiosity or desire to regain their honor.
Extrinsic motivations are motivations coming from the external world, such as with a reward, deadline, or even the law. The character is desiring to achieve something in the outside world, even if it may lead to additional fulfillment internally.
For example, the businesswoman on a cross-country trip is seeking out her identity, an intrinsic motivation, whereas the dad who takes on a substitute teacher job at a neighboring school might be doing it to stake out the soccer team and help his daughter’s team on their road to victory, an extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic character motivation examples
Extrinsic character motivation examples
- Salary increases
As you can likely deduce from the above list, though extrinsic motivations are not bad, they typically do not yield change or overall satisfaction like an intrinsic motivation might. However, extrinsic motivation can still serve its purpose in your story by inspiring a character to work towards an external goal.
For example, a character may make a bet with a friend on who can run the shortest marathon time, and while that is not nearly as intriguing as someone who runs for pleasure (yikes!) it also may lead to a more surprising journey of self-discovery the character was not wholly prepared for.
How to find your character’s motivation
Understanding why character motivation is so important is one thing, but actually finding that motivation can be tricky. Luckily, whether you’re just starting out with your story or looking to refine motivation for your work-in-progress, there are a few places you can look to easily start building out that motivation:
Build out their backstory. Backstory explains why someone is where they are today. After all, what’s a revenge story without the incident that sparked this desire? Take time to ask of your story why your character is where they are today, instead of somewhere else.
Example: A character’s mother always told them they would one day take on her business. As a result, the character has never felt there was room for their own passions. Their motivation? A desire to feel personal fulfillment.
Outline their goals. After you’ve built out a backstory, many goals and dreams will start to naturally emerge. Think about why your character has those dreams and what they hope to get out of achieving those dreams, and you may easily land on a key motivation in the process.
Example: A character wants to travel to Europe and see new sites. They haven’t seen much of the world, and want to take in new horizons. Their motivation? Adventure or curiosity.
Take note of their limitations. These limitations could be physical or mental or somewhere in-between, but they often point out something a character wishes they could get past. If you can answer why exactly they wish to overcome this limitation (or work around it), you’ll find that the heart of that desire is often the same thing as their motivation.
Example: A character wants to create a tonic for everlasting life. The limitation getting in their way? Death. Their motivation then? Fear.
If you are still can’t find your character’s motivation...
Keep asking “why.”
Or, take some time to think about what motivates you as a writer. Ask yourself “why do I write?” and spend some time thinking of the answer, then do the same to your character. Sometimes it’s easier to find the answers for characters when we already have our own!
Character motivation troubleshooting
It happens to the best of us. You’re halfway through writing your story—or maybe through several drafts—when you realize you never landed on the right motivation. Maybe you’re like me and like to write by the seat of your pants to see what unfolds, or maybe you never felt like you had found the right motivation, so you kept trying on new reasons for your character to be where they are.
Whatever the case, here are three different motivation issues you may run into in your story and the different ways to troubleshoot them:
If you’ve been told your story is boring to follow, or that people aren’t really sure why they’re reading your story, it’s likely because your character has no motivation at all. And no, this doesn’t mean they are lazy or have no purpose in life. Even a wandering or “drifter” protagonist has motivations. After all, there’s a reason they seek a quiet life without trouble or confrontation.
By contrast, a character without motivation feels like they’ve been dropped into a world perfectly orchestrated for them, with friends, enemies, and a major conflict, but still no clear reason why they’re there.
This is a common issue for writers because the truth is we often do just drop a character we like into a conflict we came up with without considering motivation. And while that may be how many of us have created many stories, our jobs as storytellers is to make the random girl in the snowy mountains on a trip with her friends seem like she was always meant to be there, like the audience caught them in the midst of life. And the way to do that is with motivation!
- The Solution: If your character is lacking in motivation, the easiest way to give them a motivation is to give them a backstory. Spend some time plotting how they got to the first day of your story, why they’re there, and most importantly, why they aren’t anywhere else.
Changing or inconsistent motivations
We all have times—especially as storytellers—when we can’t seem to make up our minds, and our characters are no different. However, indecisive or conflicted as your character may be, if their motivation is changing throughout the story without any clear reason, it’s likely because as you were writing, you too struggled to figure out what the best motivation was for your character.
If people are reading your story and saying they feel the character isn’t consistent or that they contradict themselves (and not in the human, complex way, but in the inconsistent way) then you likely are dealing with changing motivations.
- The Solution: Though it may feel cumbersome, the best way to figure out which motivation is right for your character is to break down your script by scene. Then, look at each scene and decide what is motivating the character each scene. Once you’ve done that, you’ll clearly be able to see in which cases the motivation is totally unclear, nonexistent, or different than the main motivation you introduced at the beginning of the story. Remember, the motivation you introduce at the beginning of the story is what sets the tone and behavior for the rest of your narrative, so audience members may feel your story is inconsistent even if just the first scene has a different motivation than the rest of the story.
Too many motivations
Finally, if you get a note that there is too much going on in your story, it’s likely because your character is juggling multiple motivations at the same time. For instance, maybe they’re motivated by curiosity, but also by a tight deadline. Curiosity is a slow and steady motivation, requiring more free time and an easier pace. If your character is motivated by this, and a tight deadline, you can see already how stressful and all over the place this character would be.
This isn’t to say you those two things couldn’t be featured in a story. Someone can have a lot of goals but still have one motivation. A detective solving a murder mystery may feel plagued by a deadline and feel pressure to meet it, but in the end likely will ignore this deadline because their curiosity has taken over and is what’s truly motivating them. This, in turn, may lead to someone else being wrongly imprisoned or the detective acting hurriedly, but it doesn’t supersede the curiosity motivator.
- The Solution: If you feel your character is all over the place—physically or mentally or both—then the best approach makes a list of all the different motivations in your story, then decide which singular thing is motivating them in this story. Then, take the other motivators and turn them into characters or events that add obstacles or work as mini-goals for your character.
Without character motivation, your story can feel lost and confused. But with these quick tweaks to your character's desires and dreams, you'll find it easy to build out the rest of your story and create a consistent but complex character.