Character motivation – keeping it real and true to the character

I once wrote about my husband always asking me why a character does this or that. He can be annoying about it, but it does improve my novel. You can’t have characters do things just because you, the author, want them to. They need to be motivated by their own desires.

“Every character should want something,

even if it only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Why does Johnny get off the couch and go to work even though he would rather be a couch-potato? Johnny is the sole provider for his family.

Why did Jenny rob the store? She needed the money to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments.

Why did Bobby let his little sister tag along with him on his sky-diving adventure? Bobby had no one to watch his sister, so he had no choice but to take her. (Or perhaps he knew she would love the adventure.)

There must be a reason why your character does what he does. Strong character motivation allows readers to understand why characters make the choices they do. This does not mean that you need to explain out right to your reader why something is happening. It does not mean that you need pages of back story to justify every decision.

A few well-chosen details from the past will speak volumes. And you don’t have to give the hints before the action. It can be revealed slowly through action and dialogue. If you carefully choose those elements, then readers will understand why a character can’t enter a hospital room or accept a compliment.

To help strengthen your writing, examine your characters’ traits and then decide what motivated them to develop those behaviors. If you understand your character’s beliefs and behavior, you will be able to find ways to “show” the events that led to these things without “telling” the reader anything.

And be careful that the motivations you give your characters are based on their NEEDS and not yours as an author.

Example: Why does the character go New York City?

Author Answers:

Because she needs to do something exciting. (In other words, the author needs her there.)

Because she needs to run into Emily. (Again, the author needs her there.)

Because she needs to find the key. (Again, the author needs her there.)

Character Answers:

Because her grandmother is in the hospital.

Because she is escaping the sheriff, and New York is out of his jurisdiction.

Because she is curious about the hero’s past, and he mentioned his family was there.

So as you write, examine your character’s actions and reactions. Why do they do the things they do? Make sure it is consistent with their behaviors and beliefs. And make sure it is really THEIR motivation and not your own as an author.

For even more on giving characters strong, real motivation, check out my post on character motivation from last year.

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.