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Character motivation: All you need to know

Guest author, Philip Womack, tells us all we need to know about character motivation.

Character motivation and plot are very tightly linked.

They are the Little and Large of writing fiction. A strong character will have a clear motivation, which will generate the plot. In J R R Tolkien’s fantasy novel Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Frodo needs to destroy the Ring of Power to save Middle Earth. In Daphne du Maurier’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, a husband needs to protect his family from what he considers are sinister forces. Ideally speaking, the character’s development will be linked very closely to the points in the plot: each stage will have an effect on the character; but the motivation will always push the character towards achieving a goal.   
 
Motivation is the force which pulls the reader through the story, as it creates a sense of empathy with the character. If a character’s motives are unclear or repellent, then it can cause the reader confusion or unease. And we don’t want that. Writing fiction is in part about trying to make sense of the world around us, which means trying to understand ourselves.

Is a character’s motivation the same as a goal?

A character’s goal is ultimately the end result of the motivation. Think of a footballer: his goal is to win a match; his motivation is more complex, linked to ambition and to the pride in his team and to his financial success.

Frodo’s final goal is the destruction of the ring; his motivation is to save Middle Earth. In Don’t Look Now, the goals change: initially, the protagonist, John, wants to protect his wife from what the narrator believes are sinister forces, which means that his specific goal is to remove her from their influence. Then it’s to find his wife; then it’s to reach home. But his motivation is always to make sure that his family are safe.

How does a character’s motivation affect a story’s plot?

A character’s motivation will be the major plot driver. In Homer’s Iliad, the motivation of Achilles is his anger at being dishonoured by King Agamemnon. This means that he withdraws from fighting the Trojans, which means that the Greek forces are routed. When his best friend, Patroclus, is killed, Achilles is then motivated to take revenge on the Trojans, and thus fights and kills Hector. 
 
Motivation is important. Without it characters are limp and lifeless. Too often I see characters are wetter than the wettest blanket. They are flat, and events happen to them, and they let things carry them along without questioning or thinking. A character must have life, and motivation is partly what brings it. It’s the electricity pouring into the assembled body parts of your creation. You are Victor Frankenstein: your character needs to be galvanised into life!

Should readers relate?

This is an eternal question: and the answer is, not necessarily. The general consensus is that a character must create empathy: that doesn’t necessarily mean sympathy. Our protagonists do not have to be saints: too much of that, and your reader will fling the book aside in disbelief. But on the other hand, if they are too cruel or unhinged, then the reader can be disgusted. 
 
An excellent example of an artful, successful and complex character is Humbert Humbert, the hero of Nabokov’s Lolita: he’s a murderous child molestor. His voice is exceptionally compelling: but we do not need to like him. The key is to create characters that aren’t cliches. So we are instead fascinated by his language and his style, seduced by him as much as we are revolted by his desires. 

(If you want to know more about writing villains, then read this.)

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How do you determine a character’s motivation?

A character’s determination is determined by what he or she wants. When you’re writing, you will develop your own process, but it’s a good idea to begin with your setting. A setting will produce a character: a general on a spaceship hurtling towards unknown planets will want very different things from a housewife on a farm in Wyoming. 
 
It’s a good idea to test your characters. Put them into normal situations and see what they do; then introduce an element of surprise. How does your character react? That will help you to understand what motivates them. Need and necessity are two very powerful things that produce the friction and the energy for a good story. Powerful motivations include a desire to survive; to save or to protect, or to change things for the good. 
 
You then need to decide what your character’s goal is in relation to the plot. This is very much determined by genre: the rational motivation of a detective is to find the murderer, so his goals will be step by step movements to uncover evidence against him; the motivation of Humbert Humbert is to avoid detection and to seduce Lolita, so his goals change as he travels across America. The former is a rational motivation; the latter is more conflicting and complicated. 

How do you write a powerful character?

There are many techniques to develop a powerful character, and as you continue to write, you will find that you will hone your own. Different things work for different people. Some writers like to create little biographies or dossiers for each character, detailing every aspect of their life from cheese preference to first sexual encounter to number of moles on their cheek. Others prefer to go with the flow and allow the story to shape the characters. 
 
Whichever way you choose, a character must have fully formed motivation. Ged, in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, is motivated to find a dark shadow that he himself has released; as it’s also a part of himself, the novel becomes an exploration of psychology and a movement towards a mending of a fractured psyche. 
 
In a T C Boyle short story, The Lie, two middle class American teenagers fall in love; the girl becomes pregnant. The lovers don’t want the baby to disrupt their young lives; and so, they fall into a pattern of deception that has a tragic, terrifying consequence. Their motivation is to get through college and become successful adults; but their goal is to do so by hiding a pregnancy. And thus the complexities of character are born: we empathise with them, but we are horrified by their actions. 

When all else fails, put your character in a pub, and see what he or she does. Do they go to the bar and ask for a drink? Or do they sit by the side, nervously scanning the room for a friend? You can then draw out the more general motivation. And maybe treat yourself to a glass of wine as well. Your motivation: relaxation; your goal: finish the wine.

So, there we have it, a full breakdown of character motivations. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouse and let us know what you think. 

About the author

Philip Womack is a published author and JW Editor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial services page.

Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge (2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King (2014), The Liberators (2010), and The Other Book (2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, The Spectator, and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University.

You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here.

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