Character motivations are a big part of driving the story forwards. Below, I talk about what exactly motivations are, what they aren’t, and the three most common pitfalls.
What motivations are
- Strong motivations are consistent with characterization. If the reader knows everything there is to know about a character, the motivation should be relatively easy to deduce.
- Motivation colors the actions. Why characters do things should have an impact on how exactly those things are done.
- Motivations stop characters from walking away from the plot, either by pulling the character forwards, or stopping them from going back. Ideally, you have a bit of both.
- Some motivations are stronger than others. This should come across in how your character prioritizes their goals. (So rescue the prince first, then go home and make fajitas.)
What motivations aren’t
- Motivations are not always rooted in logic. As in real life, characters do not always want things that are logically good for them or the people around them.
- Motives are not always apparent. For any non-POV character, the readers do not know everything running through their head. It’s okay to let the motive be non-obvious and to allow the reader to riddle out what the characters are playing at.
- Motives are not singular. A character may have several conflicting motivations at once.
- Motives are not unique. Many different motives may result in the same course of action. Many different courses of action may result from the same motive. (For the math people out there: this is to say that if there was a function mapping motives to outcomes, it would be neither well-defined nor one to one.)
3 things that make for poor motivation
1. Because Destiny says so
When characters do things because they must (in-universe), it often saps the characters of agency and deprives you of the chance to give them their own motivations. When their actions are dictated by an anonymous external force, that lessens their personal stake in what’s happening and their ability to steer the events of the story. In turn, this makes it feel like they’re just along for the ride. It also means that rather than earning their place as the hero because they’re badass or interesting, it’s been handed to them.
This is especially bad when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If two characters are fated to be enemies, it makes the conflict less personal. If they’re fated to fall in love, that essentially means that they’re trapped together whatever they do, and that they’re only together because its been preordained—not because they loved each other enough to fight for their relationship.
Additionally, destiny lowers the stakes. Destiny as motivation is often a simple way of kicking the characters into action without putting anything personal on the line. The alternative is that destiny becomes a way of holding something that the hero cares about hostage to a larger, unrelated quest (e.g.. Alice must be the one to slay the dragon or Lucy, her true love, will die of non-dragon related causes). This divorces cause from effect, and makes the consequences of failure appear forced.
2. Because the plot says so
“Destiny says so” happens in-universe. Everyone in the story acknowledges that something is afoot. “The plot says so” is when characters are forced to act a certain way for reasons that occur outside of the story. Rather than the characters driving their own story or the plot being carried along by its own momentum, things happen as the Plot Gods demand.
This manifests in a couple of ways. A few examples:
- Two characters with no chemistry coming together abruptly because you envisioned
them as a couple.
- A character investigating a plot thread that shouldn’t hold much personal interest for them because the story can only progress if they pursue it.
- A character ignoring information that would interest them solely because it would advance the plot too quickly if they knew.
- Characters treating something non-mysterious as a mystery so as to artificially create a driving question, even when no one has any good reason to be curious. This is especially true when a mundane explanation is readily available, but rejected offhand without evidence.
This is harder to address than “Destiny says so” because most people don’t do this intentionally. The best way to become aware of it is to look at critical points in the story and ask whether the plot is unfolding around the character’s choices, or if the characters are only making choices that suit the rigid structure of the plot.
3. Because a strong gut feeling says so
The bastard child of Destiny and the Plot Gods, gut feelings lead to stories driven by coincidence. When non-prescient characters suddenly develop a hunch that they ought to be somewhere or do something, their actions quickly become contrived. This gets in the way of giving them real motivations, and it makes the story feel much less organic. It also removes their agency because things happen to them as a result of chance, rather than their own choices.
Gut feelings also create information flow problems because they rely on characters knowing things that they could not possibly know. This can lead to plot holes, since the extra information isn’t coming from anywhere.
The motive monologue
This is when, uncertain that the character motivation was clear enough, and the narrative stops to explain exactly what’s going on in their head and why their actions are perfectly rational. First, this tends to hit every pitfall of the internal monologue. It’s out of scene, slow-paced, removes opportunities for characterization, and breaks up tension. Second, for the POV characters, motives should be clear enough that the reader doesn’t require a lengthy explanation. The motive monologue is a red flag that the author themself isn’t certain of whether or not its clear why the characters are doing what they’re doing. If you think that a character’s motivation is weak, the best thing that you can do is go back into the story and make it stronger.
Note that the motive monologue is delivered by the narrator, not through dialogue. A character explaining their own motivations is much different, especially since it raises the question of how much is true, and how much is the way that the character chooses to present themself.