Learning What Drives Us Through Character Motivation
Learn how to figure out what your characters want, and craft compelling character motivations.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!
I don’t know about you, but I have more questions. Where did the chicken come from? What was on the other side that was so interesting? Will the chicken stay on the other side or bring whatever was there back across? “To get to the other side” is a pretty weak motivation, but I think we can make it better.
Character motivation is what gets your story moving. By giving your character a reason to get from A to B, you’re giving your audience a reason to hope that they make it. You’re going from a plot outline to a full story, and making us believe, if just for a little while, that the characters in it are like you and me - real people with needs and feelings we should care about.
Make your audience care whether the chicken gets to the other side of the road by learning to create complex characters with compelling motivations..
What is character motivation?
Motivation, according to the dictionary, is a “stimulus or influence,” also called an incentive or drive. Basically, it’s the reason that you take actions or make decisions. It’s the “why” behind a “what.” Motivations draw from an intrinsic (or, internal) need that must be filled. For instance, if you’re hungry, you are motivated to eat to fulfill that need.
Character motivations, then, are the “why” behind a character’s actions in the plot. They’re the driving need that authors focus on and explore when deciding how a story will play out.
Rational and irrational motivations
There are two main types of character motivation:
- A rational motivation is one that can be easily explained by logic. You are hungry, so you look for food. You are tired, so you go to sleep. Rational motivations are often physical because physical needs are fairly universal.These may also be known as external motivations - because you need to seek out something to meet them, or you’re responding to conditions of your environment.
- An irrational motivation is one that can’t be explained by direct logic. Most emotional motivations are irrational, in that every person’s reaction to emotion is different and may not make sense to other people. These tend to be more complicated and deeply seated than rational motivations. Because these are based on a person’s internal thoughts and beliefs, they are also often referred to as internal motivations.
Now, I’m not saying that one kind of motivation is better than the other. Quite the opposite! Usually in your story, you’ll need both kinds of motivation to build believable characters.
Why is character motivation important?
Motivations are incredibly important from a storytelling perspective because they drive the plot in a very literal sense.
If a character has no motivation, their actions or reactions might come across as confusing or ungenuine. Without understanding why they’re making certain choices above others, your readers might feel disconnected from them and even have trouble finishing the story because they don’t have see the point of it.Having a visible motivation offers readers insight into characters’ minds and makes them more relatable, even if the reader doesn’t share their exact motivation.
On the flip side of this, hiding a character’s motivation can cause significant intrigue in the story as readers attempt to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing and what they’ll do next. It can make your reader curious and bring them further into the world, which can help them become immersed in it and learn to love it more.
Motivations help provide an outline for a character arc. If your main character feels lonely, they have a strong motivation to make friends, and their character development over the course of the book may revolve around building up their confidence and social skills.
Character needs versus character motivations
To identify a character’s motivation, we have to know what their needs are. Needs are intrinsic - they are what we have to have in order to survive. So, chasing those needs is the most primal motivation a person can have.
But not all needs are the same. A person needs to have a hobby, yes, but painting isn’t exactly going to save you if you have no water in a desert. To account for the different kinds of needs we have, we’ll look at a fairly classic psychological model: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist from New York whose career focused on humanistic psychology, or the scientific study of basic human function. He believed that people had fundamental needs that had to be met and that those needs could be arranged from most to least urgent.
According to Maslow, the hierarchy of needs is (from bottom to top):
- Physiological needs, or the basic biological requirements for life. These are things that will literally kill us if we are without them, such as air, water, food, shelter, warmth, and sleep.
- Safety and security needs, or the needs which allow us to exist in a comfortable and stable environment. These needs are things like financial security, a lawful and fair society, spaces that are free from threats, and overall health.
- Love and belonging needs, or the psychological need we have for other people. Humans are a fundamentally social species, so we really do need bonds with other humans to survive. These needs include a sense of community, interpersonal relationships like family, or a best friend. Trust. Acceptance.
- Esteem needs, or the need to feel that we have personal worth. This is actually split into two smaller categories: self-esteem (things like independence and autonomy) and respect (having some kind of social status or sense of importance in society).
- Self-actualization needs are the highest up on the hierarchy and include things like a sense of self-fulfillment from one’s life and the realization of a person’s inner potential. This might include creative expression, academic pursuits, or career goals.
The higher up on the hierarchy you go, the more complicated the needs become, and the harder it is to achieve them. Physiological and safety needs are direct, rational motivations; I need to eat, I need to sleep, I need to get out of the rain, I need to get away from this bear. Anything beyond that is a little more complicated because it involves taking other people into account, so it becomes an irrational motivation; I need her to like me, I need this job, I need to get out more.
Character goals versus character motivations
It’s pretty common to confuse a character’s motivations with their goals. They’re both about getting what the character desires or needs, so what’s the difference?
Motivation, as I’ve said, is the driving force you have to fill a need. It’s the why behind your actions. A goal, on the other hand, is the what; goals are set waypoints we designate to show us where we are on a journey. They’re usually relatively specific and can be measured in some way. So, if Little Sally is cold, her motivation is her need for warmth, but her goal is to get somewhere warm.
You can definitely get your character’s goals from their motivations, though. If your Big Bad Evil Guy feels like he needs ultimate power in order to be fulfilled or to be strong enough to protect the things he loves, then he might use that motivation to achieve the goal of taking over the world. You can also work backward from a goal to figure out the underlying motivation. If your hero is trying desperately to win a tournament that their loved one is watching, they might be motivated by the need to feel important and impressive to their boo.
Examples of powerful character motivations
Let’s look at some characters and see if we can pinpoint their motivations and where those motivations come from.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games lives in a dangerous district with very little food, so she and her family are always hungry. They can’t rely on their government and, since their mother is emotionally absent after the loss of their father, Katniss and Prim have only each other to rely on. This motivation of desperation and the love of her sister is what causes Katniss to take Prim’s place in the games. She’s motivated on a basic, rational level - even if she dies, Prim will have enough money for food - and on a more complex, emotional level - she’s absolutely terrified of losing her little sister. Katniss’s motivations change throughout the series, too; the more she sees the Capital’s excess and cruelty, the more she feels that she can’t stand to watch them keep abusing their citizens and the more determined she becomes to break the cycle of abuse.
Let’s try looking at something a little more lighthearted. Elle Woods, from Legally Blonde, has all of her basic needs met - she’s a rich socialite college girl - but has her need for interpersonal relationships and a sense of personal worth dashed when her boyfriend Warner dumps her to find someone more “serious” at Harvard law school. This insult to her intelligence and worth as a person outside of aesthetics motivates Elle to get into Harvard, initially with the intent of winning Warner back but later with earning her place among her peers in the courtroom and proving that you can be both pretty and smart. Her overt motivation was for love - in her own words - but when you look a little closer, it becomes clear that all along, she just needed to find that she had her own worth outside of a relationship or a social stigma.
Okay, diving right back into dark - no pun intended - subject matter, let’s talk about the Joker in The Dark Knight. The Joker has had many iterations, but none have shown his base motives quite like Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight trilogy. In this movie, we watch him do horrible things - murder, grand larceny, arson, and more despicable acts - for seemingly no reason. No one watching (hopefully) sympathizes with him, so why do people love this interpretation so much? Well, in the words of our lovely Alfred, “some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money…Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker is motivated by an intrinsic belief that chaos reigns and that we are all pawns in a world with no real, respectable order. He has no regard for anyone else because he feels he doesn’t need to; to him, the destruction of the existing order just makes sense. In a world with no power structure, you have no one to weigh you down and nothing to answer to. It’s a wholly irrational motivation, one that’s unrelatable to most viewers, but it does make the character’s actions make sense and it makes for a fascinating villain to watch.
How to craft your character’s motivations
So, you know what a motivation is, where it comes from, and what it looks like in action in other stories. How do you incorporate all of this into your own stories? How do you craft your character’s motivations? Here are some basic steps to get you started.
- Examine the plot. What story are you telling? What does your character need to do in order for that to happen? Write out the actions your character has to take in order to progress the plot. These are your character’s goals.
- Make the backstory relevant. Okay, you know what they have to do. Why might they have to be the one to do it? Build this into their backstory. Give them something personal to fight for and somewhere to go or get back to.
- Examine needs and fears. If the character has an unmet need, use that as a reason for them to get involved in the plot. You might also want to look and see if they have any fears that might force them to keep moving or to move away from a particular goal.
- Fill in the gaps with motivation. Take your character’s backstory, needs, and fears, and fill in the gaps between your plot points! Weave this motivation into your plot from start to finish.
Let’s watch this in action with The Hobbit!
- I have a story where my protagonist, Bilbo, must go on an adventure with his companions to defeat an evil dragon by stealing back a powerful artifact. So, his actions must be:
- Take Gandalf up on his offer for adventure.
- Travel safely from the Shire to Erebor.
- Get inside Smaug’s lair without getting caught.
- Get out with the Arkenstone and give it back to the dwarves.
- The hobbits are generally known for being unadventurous, so maybe Bilbo has an unusual thirst for adventure that he’s tried very hard to hide. He’s also practical and careful in his everyday life (keeping everything in his house in order and becoming distraught when it’s thrown about), so he’s perfect for a stealth mission.
- Bilbo has his basic needs met (food, water, shelter, safety), but he’s unusual, so he doesn’t fit in well with other hobbits. He needs to feel like he belongs and is important. He’s afraid of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but also afraid of biting off more than he can chew with such a grand adventure, meaning he’ll come to appreciate his life in the Shire all the more when he comes home.
- So now, every time we come to a challenge for completing our goals, Bilbo can rely on his adventurous spirit, practical mindset, and determination to succeed in order to overcome them. He lets Gandalf do the talking with dangerous monsters and unlikely allies while he stays in the background, finding the easiest and quickest way to get things done. Then, when forced to do the talking himself, finds a practical solution - play a game for the ring, use the ring to disappear with the stone, get the stone to the dwarves, and get home with his prize and a new reputation!
If you want to get a little more complicated than this or you don’t want to give away the game to the audience right away, try giving your character an ulterior motive. Ulterior motives are the reasons that we keep hidden and cover with a fake “surface” motive. This might be because the character is embarrassed about what they’re trying to do, they don’t want to put anyone else in danger, or, if they are figured out, they won’t be able to accomplish their goals.
Most people associate ulterior motives with the villains of stories, and it’s perfectly valid to use them that way. In mystery and adventure novels especially, it’s incredibly common for one of the “good guys” to have been a bad guy all along, hiding their real intentions in order to use the heroes to get what they want or get away with their crimes. You might also use ulterior motives to humanize a villain; on the surface, they’re doing these evil things for power, but what they really wanted all along was to be seen for who they are and appreciated.
But ulterior motives can be great for heroes, too! They add an extra layer of depth that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. Maybe your hero is on an adventure ostensibly to save the world out of the goodness of their hearts, but deep down, they’re doing it because they want to be remembered. Maybe a villain in the first act becomes a hero in the third because they realized that all they wanted was to feel important, and they don’t actually want to hurt anyone.
This is a great place to use your character’s needs and fears for their motivations; their surface motivation might be how society interprets them while their ulterior motive is how they view themselves. Ulterior motives can also be a great way to style a third-act confrontation; having a character reveal that they know what the other really wants can make for great dramatic tension, especially if the character’s companions never knew and feel betrayed by the lie of omission.
So, why did the chicken cross the road? He was driven by a need for food and a sense of danger on this side, so he wants to make it to the side that feels safe, and therefore crosses the road.
Not as pithy as the original joke, but it’s definitely a better story.
Character motivation is an essential part of telling a good story. Without it, the plot would never move at all, or if it did, we simply wouldn’t care. Motivation is what makes your reader understand and care about your character, which can help them get thoroughly invested in the story that you’re telling.
By learning to create characters with strong, multidimensional motivations, you’re learning to write stories that feel just a bit more human to read.