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Friday, March 23

What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Motivations are a big part of plotting. Why your characters (especially your protagonist and antagonist) do the things they do will often determine how your plot unfolds. It's also where your conflicts will come in, and why the stakes will feel high or just meh.

Of course, showing those motivations without banging a reader over the head can be the hard part. Especially if the reasons aren't clear to the character.

While you don't have to know every single little reason why your character does every single little thing, if what they do affects the plot or story, it's a good idea to know why they did it. Otherwise, you might end up with a reactionary protagonist or a character who's just acting out plot, but doesn't really care about it. Those kinds of characters can leave a story feeling flat and lifeless.

So take a look at your scenes and your characters' motivations. Ask yourself:

Is it a conscious motivation? 

Conscious motivations are the easiest, because they're the ones most likely driving the full force of the plot. You know what your character wants and why they want it. They'll probably even state outright why they're acting as they are. Someone trapped in a burning building is going to look for a way out to save their life. Their actions probably won't need a lot of motivational explaining. A woman trying to find out whose number was on a lipstick-smeared napkin in her husband's pocket is also easy to figure out. Odds are, she'll even think "Who's number is this? Is he having an affair? Maybe I should call it?"

Try pinpointing what your character wants and why.
  • Can they think about why they want to act?
  • Can they state the why outright through dialog?
  • What types of actions suggest the motivation without spelling it out? 

Is it an unconscious motivation?

These are trickier, because the character doesn't realize why they're behaving as they are. Teens acting out to get attention is a good example here. They want to feel loved/noticed/needed but their goals are to stay out late or skip school. (or worse) Their actions don't convey what they really want, or why they want it.

If they want love, they might notice other people in love or shows of affection, and then react viscerally to them. They might get angry when their actions don't get the desired response. They might yell "Why can't you just accept me?" showing they want this acceptance, even though they're doing everything they can to rebel against it.

Try letting them think about or notice the things they do want.
  • Can you show their motivation by what they don't do or say?
  • Can they think one way and act another?
  • Can they comment on what they unconsciously want to do in an offhand manner?
  • Can they act in a way that alludes to the unconscious motivation?

Is it a deliberate motivation? 

Deliberate motivations are different from conscious ones, in that the character is very aware of why they're acting as they are. They have a plan, a specific expectation of what they're getting/causing/doing by acting in a particular way. Odds are they'll state exactly why they're acting this way and what they hope to gain by it.

That wife who thinks her husband is cheating on her might deliberately mention infidelity just to see his reaction.

Try having your character be aware of why they're acting this way.
  • Can they think about why they want to act?
  • Can they spell out their plan to a friend?
  • Can they ask leading questions that suggest why they're acting?
  • Can they try to talk themselves out of it? Into it?

Do you need to show the motivation? 

While many will advise to always know why your characters do something, trying to show every single motivation can bog a story down. Sometimes you just want them to brush their hair out of their eyes so you can tag a line of dialog without using "he said." If the action is an invisible type of action that means nothing at all (like hair brushing), don't try to force meaning into it.
  • Will the reader be lost if the reason behind an action isn't revealed?
  • Will showing the motivation make the scene richer?
  • Will showing the motivation make the character feel more three dimensional?
  • Will showing the motivation mislead or confuse the reader?

However, if the reason behind the action affects plot or shows something significant about the character, understanding their motivation is likely vital to your story.
  • Are there any details that can show or suggest that motivation?
  • Can they mentally debate the pros and cons of their reasoning?
  • Can they actually debate with another character?
  • Can they try to talk another character into or out of something?

The why is often the most compelling reason to read a story. When you're plotting, don't forget to think about the why as well as the what. Motivations drive characters to act, and determine how far that character might go to achieve their goals.

At what stage do you think about character motivations? Do you write them in a first draft or add them in later? Do they come naturally or do you have to work at the reasons why? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I think readers need to feel (even if only in a nebulous way) what the character's motivation is.

    I think (as an author) that if I don't have the motivation down right from the start (at least in my head) then I'll have a hard time finishing the book.

  2. Great tips as always. You're right. Too much explaining or talking about what a character is doing can bog the story down. Hard to find that balance.

  3. I try to think about the character motivations right from the first word. It's not something that comes naturally, but if I know what the motivation is, I find it much easier to write.

  4. I usually figure out at least the core motivation pretty early in working with a MC.

    However, I've been writing a book where I'm a good 6 months behind in writing it because I got stuck—because I misunderstood the character. I thought that she understood her own motivations, but she didn't.

    Not knowing a character's motivation makes writing a pain in the behind.

    …And now I know why this scene is giving me trouble. I know the girl's motivation, but I only know part of the guy's.

    Thanks! ^_^

  5. Excellent post. I usually go into the story knowing some motivations of the characters but often they surprise me as I go along.

  6. Jill, thanks! I'm that way as well. The times when characters are just actin gout plot feel flat, and they often end up boring me.

    Natalie, thanks! It is, and than goodness for revisions and beta readers, right? hehe

    Imogen, more of a plot focused writer? Or maybe you find out why they want things as you write?

    Carradee, welcome, glad it helped! Goals and motivations are almost always the culprits when I get stuck.

    Traci, thanks! A lot I figure out as I go, but I typically know the basic motivators.

  7. Thanks, Janice. This is so helpful. Love your posts.