Giving characters strong, real motivation

A good story is all about the believability. Readers can believe in dragons and magic or falling in love if the world and the characters an author builds feel real.

I have often stressed making your characters realistic by giving them flaws. But this also means that their actions and motivations need to be realistic.

Character motivations are born from the character’s past. What happened in his or her life to make them the way there are now? This is one reason creating a history for your characters is so important. But remember that good writing is about showing these reasons without pages and pages of back story. It will be shown by a few well-chosen details from the past that can explain why your character cannot call her father on Father’s day or enter a hospital room.

Plot is derived from characters and their motivations. Motivation leads to action, which leads to more action. And it leads to problems and conflict. Without characters wanting to do certain things and to have certain outcomes, there is no plot.

So having a character behave in character makes him real. They should make decisions based on their own desires and ideas and not what is convenient for the plot.

I picked this topic after reading a romance novel where I found one of the main character’s actions somewhat inconsistent with his goals. The main character – we will call him Justin since I don’t remember his name – runs the family company. Someone stole a new-product idea, and if he doesn’t get proof of this, his company will be ruined. I am fine with all that but on his plane ride to investigate the theft, Justin meets Molly, who is on her way home for her wedding. The problem is that she hasn’t told her overbearing mother that she dumped her cheating fiancé six weeks ago.

Justin helps Molly off the plane after she has a bad reaction from mixing Dramamine and alcohol. Her family assumes he is her fiancé. He realizes that Molly’s father works for the company who may have stolen his product idea and decides to play the fiancé to get more information.

Ok so it is far-fetched, but I can see the reason behind the portrayal. Molly goes along with it as she wants to stage a big breakup that will appease her mother who has spent thousands of dollars on the wedding. I am fine with the story up to this point. But Justin – whose company will go under next week – spends all his time helping Molly and forgetting about the company and its workers he needs to save.

Justin’s motivation didn’t ring real to me. It pulled me out of the story. If he was so gung-ho on saving his family’s business, why was he helping a woman he just met? Yes, she is beautiful and he felt “compelled” to help her because he is attracted to her, but this was a weak motivation. And just because it is a romance novel doesn’t mean the characters need to act in some sort of believable way.

This is what I am talking about when making sure you have a strong motivation for your characters. If a character values keeping his word, he may strive to do so no matter what even if means breaking some rules. He will act a certain way because of this belief. And it is the author’s task to make sure the actions and motivation fit this character and not just the story. If any of this is “off,” the reader will be distracted from the story, just as I was distracted from the story of James and Molly.

You, as the writer, need to know the characters and ensure they act as if they are living on the page and following their own story rather than being moved around like puppets.

I recently read some advice that said when working with characters, the stimulus that causes their action, the action and the motivation all must make sense. So if a man is poor and fighting for the survival of his family, it could follow that to ensure their survival he resorts to stealing.

breadWhat is the stimulus? Hunger & lack of money.
What is the response? Steal a loaf of bread.
What is the motivation? Love, survival of family.

What if the stimulus wasn’t that his kids were hungry, but that he woke up from a bad dream? Would it have made sense for him to steal food? No. It would not.

Or perhaps instead of stealing food for his starving family, he meets a woman and runs off with her. Would that work with his motivation of loving his family and wanting them to survive? No. It would not.

So when working with your characters, considering these three questions may help you ensure your character’s response and motivation to your plot are believable and not just there because you, the author, deemed that is the way your story needs to go. Remember stories are character driven.

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One thought on “Giving characters strong, real motivation

  1. […] Develop your plot. Make sure there is a compelling question the protagonist needs to answer. Consider the beginning, middle and end of the novel. Now some people love to outline their whole novel while others like to “fly by the seat of their pants” so to speak. This means they start with a general idea but don’t plot out every move of their novel. They focus more on letting the characters drive the story. […]

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