Character motivations are the driving force behind all stories. Without motivation, no one would want to go off on an adventure, take risks, fall in love, or do any of the things that make a story worth reading. Motivation is necessary in order for a story to have any plot, since motivation is what determines characters’ actions.
It’s not always easy to give characters believable and interesting motives. On top of that, there’s a huge list of used-up tropes and clichés that are temptingly easy to slap onto just about any character. With a little extra work, however, even those old tropes can be used as part of a character’s complete and complex backstory.
What are Character Motivations?
As stated above, character motives are the reasons behind a character’s behavior, and they are determined by the character’s wants and needs. A character who needs to survive a dangerous situation is going to behave in ways that help them stay alive. A character who wants to become rich is going to take action to help them make more money.
To break it down:
Goals are what a character wants.
Motives are why a character wants that goal.
Here are some examples of what that looks like:
- Jenny goes to the mall (goal) because she wants to buy new clothes (motive).
- Ronny plans to rob the corner store (goal) because he didn’t get enough tips at work to be able to make his rent payment (motive).
- Elenore sets out for Riverville (goal) because she plans to sell her fresh fruits to the elves there (motive).
- Eve has to commit fraud (goal) because her employer threatened to fire her otherwise (motive).
- Cole plans to vandalize his boyfriend’s car (goal) because he found evidence of infidelity and was heartbroken (motive).
- Nora is going skydiving (goal) because she’s a thrill-seeker (motive).
Two characters can have the same goal, yet wildly different motives. For example, two characters both want to save the world, but one of them wants to help other people, while the other only wants to be famous.
Characters often have multiple different goals at the same time, and these goals can overlap, conflict, and be long- or short-term. After all, most people have a desire to continue living, but they also may want to start a family, go on an adventure, avenge their dead father, or any number of other things.
Character motivations are important for all characters, but villains especially need to have carefully considered motives. A hero rarely needs to justify their behavior, but villains often need clear motives for readers to take them seriously. Any time you have a character who behaves in ways that most people would consider abhorrent, they should have a clear reason for doing so—even if their reason is just that they’re insane or like to see people suffer. The villain’s monologue has become a popular trope for a reason, after all.
In the interest of not derailing this article, I’m going to link to my other article How to Write Good Villains in Fiction, and you can check that out if you want a deeper dive into why a villain’s motives are so important.
Why are Character Motivations Important?
Motives not only help readers understand that character and their behaviors, but it also gives them something to relate to. Motives reveal not just what a character wants, but how they think, which can open them up to be better understood. Readers may not sympathize with a character’s goal of hunting ghosts, going to space, or committing a crime, but they often can sympathize with a character’s motives.
In addition to that, motives simply make a story more interesting. The more complex a character’s reasoning is, the more fun it is to read about. Think about a road trip story, for example. A character going on a road trip for no reason is boring and unrealistic. A character going on a road trip to hunt down artifacts from their late grandfather’s old collection is a story with life behind it. It opens up so many more questions about who these characters are and what their history is, and it makes it clear to readers that more interesting things are going to come up throughout the course of the story.
Different Types of Character Motivations
When it comes to discussing character motivations, many people rely on something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’ve probably seen a variety of different triangular graphics depicting a hierarchy of needs, from basic needs like food and shelter at the bottom, and self-fulfilling needs like creative activities at the top. The idea is that a character can only worry about needs higher on the pyramid when all the needs below are met. A character cannot spend time worrying about love or creative pursuits when they struggle to find enough to eat.
Personally, I think it’s much easier to understand and keep things organized if motives are sorted into three categories instead: needs, wants, and obligations. This also makes it easier to see opportunities for internal conflict.
Every human (or humanoid, for that matter) needs basic things to ensure their health and survival. These needs are often straightforward, universal, and necessary. If we’re comparing it to Maslow, this would be the “basic needs” section, which includes “physiological needs” and “safety.”
Depending on your perspective (and the perspective of the character in question), you can also include social needs in this category, such as:
People are diverse and unique, and they often desire a wide variety of different things that they don’t really need in order to survive. In fact, sometimes a person’s wants contradict their needs, such as a person sacrificing personal safety to go thrill-seeking.
- Creative pursuits
- And much… much… more.
A person may be driven to complete something without needing or wanting to do it, but rather, they act because of external pressure. Often, the person feels compelled to complete something because of the threat of consequences if they fail to do so.
- A curse
- And more.
How to Give Characters Motivation
Now that you know what character motives are and why they are important, you can move on to applying them to your own work.
In many situations, character motives develop naturally as you plot out and write your story. However, if you’re having a hard time deciding what motivates your characters, you may actually need to work backward and examine how you’ve built them to begin with.
Trying to create character motives for an underdeveloped character is going to be a constant struggle. In order to know what they want, and why they want it, you’re going to need to know who they are first. Having a clear understanding of the character’s personality and history will help you figure out what motivates them.
Motives often manifest as a result of a character’s situation and ideals. Take a look at their past, how they were raised, and what they were taught as they were growing up. How do they view the world? What are their ideas of right and wrong? What are their specific morals? Even their financial status can have a huge impact on the motives they develop. In fact, just about everything about them can influence their motives.
For a more in-depth explanation of how to create every aspect of a character’s backstory, check out How to Create Compelling Character Backstories.
Or, if you don’t have much at all figured out about your character, you can take a look at How to Make Characters Interesting, Complex, and Unique too.
Once you have a clear framework for the character’s backstory, it will be easier to see what they are willing and unwilling to do, what they desire, what drives them, and more. The character’s backstory should always come first.
Once you’ve fleshed out the character you’re working on, you next have to decide what it is you need them to do. Characters exist for a reason, after all. Every character you introduce in a story is introduced to do something. That’s the point. The struggle is figuring out how to justify what they do.
For example, say you’re writing a story, and you know you need to introduce a villain to slow the hero’s journey down. For the purpose of this example, let’s say the villain kidnaps the hero’s sidekick to force the hero to come look for their friend instead of continue their quest. Stopping the hero is their goal, but what’s their motive? The villain could simply disagree with the hero’s quest, they could disagree with the hero’s methods, or they could simply hate the hero because of a childhood grudge they were never able to get over. Maybe they secretly have a crush on the hero. Maybe they have a crush on the sidekick. Maybe they just think it’s fun to mess with the hero. The specifics of their motive are going to depend on, you guessed it, their backstory.
Flaws play an important role in character motivations. The reason for this is that a character’s flaws can get in the way of their goals, and can thus change the ways they think about and try to achieve those goals. Sometimes, overcoming one’s flaws is the goal. Not only that, but a character’s flaws can impact the way they think about situations, and can lead to characters having some morally dubious or downright confused motives.
Consider what the character struggles with, and how that could impact the things they want and why. What are the limits of what they’re capable of? What obstacles are between them and their goals? Do they have fears? Traumas? Biases? How do these flaws interfere with their ability to make decisions and act on them?
Consider the flaw of impulsivity. An impulsive character could make decisions in the heat of passion, and could end up making mistakes they can’t take back. They may have intense and short-lived goals of getting even with someone, stealing, or committing some other kind of crime. Even if they regret it immediately afterward, it still counts as a motive.
If you want more ideas for character flaws, you can find more info in How to Create Complex Flaws for Characters.
Writing Complex Character Motives
As I’ve already hinted at throughout this article, conflict is the key to writing complex motives for your characters. A character being stuck between what they want and what they need is an important storytelling trope. They could also be stuck between what they really want, and what they think they want—the latter being someone else’s ideals that have been imposed upon them. Or, they could be stuck between what they need or want, and what they are expected or forced to do.
When two character motives conflict, the character will often have to make a choice between one or the other. Sometimes, achieving one goal will render the other one impossible, and the character must learn that they cannot have absolutely everything they want. They can even end up making the wrong choice based on their flaws and biases, and end up regretting it.
Conflicts like these can be a reliable way of adding some interest and internal turmoil to their character. If you want some more inspiration for giving characters conflicting motives, then be sure to check out The 4 Main Types of Conflict in Stories (And Variations!).
My favorite kinds of character motives are the ones that are desperate, often forced as a result of the character’s perceived lack of options. When a character is cornered and they don’t know what else to do, their actions can reveal a lot about how they think.
Aside from conflict, you should also be considering your character’s growth and development throughout the story. A character’s goals and motives are dynamic, and they can change as the person grows and obtains new information. Motives and goals can both change at the same time, but one can change without the other.
A character’s motive can change, while their goal remains the same. For example, a person sets out on an adventure because they want to become rich and famous. Their goal is to go on an adventure, and their motive is to find fame and fortune. Along the way, however, they end up saving other people, learning more about their fellow adventurers, and overall just enjoying their freedom. Over time, their motives shift, and although they still retain the goal of adventuring, now they do it for the joy they get out of it.
Inversely, a character’s goal can change while their motives stay intact. For example, a character with a strong moral compass may try to do what is right at all times, and if their original goal ever comes into conflict with that motive (or they learn information about their goal that is contrary to what they believed), then they can choose a new goal that aligns better with their motives.
How to Reveal a Character’s Motives in Your Story
You don’t always have to tell readers outright what the character’s motives are, but you certainly can. A villain monologuing about how they became evil and why they believe what they do is a hugely popular trope for a reason. However, you can be more subtle about it if your story requires it.
The easiest way to reveal a character’s motives subtly is to take your time, and plan out when you want to reveal specific elements of their motives throughout the story. Associate different pieces of information with different points in the plot, so you can control exactly how much readers can know at that point. If you want to be cheeky with it, you can utilize some careful foreshadowing to lead up to the reveal.
If you’re dealing with a character who is more mysterious or out of reach (such as a villain or absent character), you can utilize secondary sources to reveal bits and pieces of their motive. These can include things like journal entries, letters they’ve written, objects of significance, their browser history, side characters, and more. After all, a character who isn’t around or doesn’t particularly like the other characters is not going to explicitly tell them whatever they want to know.
Even if you plan to give your BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) a long and dramatic monologue, you should still keep in mind that readers don’t often like to be spoon-fed information. Leave just a little bit for readers to figure out, and they’ll feel more invested in the plot.