We’re told that to create an
engaging story we need to know what motivates our characters. What do they
want? What do they long for? What’s at stake?
“Motivation, based on a character’s
beliefs, family, and environmental and cultural background, provides a
trajectory for characters to act and grow on. Motivations compel action, create
goals in scenes, and drive characters to achieve goals,” writes Jessica Page
Morrell in Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. “Motivations provide characters with
credible reasons for their actions.”
So what might drive your character?
Consider these 8 motivators:
1. Home/a place in the world. Think
of (the literal) stories about orphans as well as coming-of-age tales and
characters moving to a new town (or country).
2. Meaning/purpose. You could write
about a character who decides to take a risk and follow her dream. Or who finds,
or loses, his faith.
3. Knowledge/wisdom. Could be an
intellectual or a spiritual quest. Is your character seeking answers? Is she a
student—or a teacher?
4. Connection/love/friendship. Maybe
your character desires romance and/or marriage. Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent novel
The Marriage Plot gives this type of story an interesting modern spin. Or
perhaps you’re more interested in delving into bonds of the platonic variety.
5. Wealth/financial gain. Ebenezer
Scrooge (pictured above) initially thinks of success in monetary terms, though his motivations
6. Revenge. Look no further than the
classic revenge tales “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe and The
Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
7. Fame/recognition. You might dream
up a character focused on a career in the spotlight, or maybe he merely wants
to be honored for all the hard work that he feels goes unnoticed.
8. Justice. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher
helps strangers because he believes it’s the right thing to do.
Of course, this list is hardly comprehensive.
“Boredom as a motivation is vastly underrepresented in literature,” Francine
Prose, author of My New American Life, told Sarah Anne Johnson in an upcoming
interview for The Writer. “People think everyone does something out of a
passionate need for this or an intellectual desire for that. But I think people
do a lot of things because they think it’s going to be interesting.”
For a nuanced discussion of
character motivation, see novelist Aimee Bender’s essay in The Writer’s
Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, in which she warns against oversimplifying: “We’ve been trained to believe that
psychology is cause and effect, but, actually, our motivations are complicated
and messy, and how our actions tie into our motivation isn’t always clear.”
And for more help with motivation,
check out Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream as well as:
Lange, associate editor