Character: It’s All About the Motivation


When my middle child was little, maybe about three years old, he would join in on a card game with my oldest and me, called “Rat-a-Tat Cat”. The goal was to have the lowest sum of numbers at the end. The higher numbered cards like seven, eight, and nine had pictures of rats on them to help kids see that you wouldn’t want those (these are RATS, people, not cute little mice). All other cards had cats (which are Good, obvs, just ask the interwebz). Oldest child, aged five, knew what was what and played competitively. 3YO, however, didn’t care. In fact, his favorite number at the time was 8, so he happily exchanged all of his 1s and 2s for the coveted full hand of 8s. 5YO, of course, tried to teach him, but I reminded him that the goal of our game time was to have fun, and if “losing” by having all 8s was fun for him, then he actually won.

Let me tell you another story. Once upon a time, my husband and I used to play Scrabble. You might think that the supposed bookish wordsmith would have won all the time, but not so. The thing was, I liked to play long words and to do so in ways that would open up the board for more beautiful words. Ha. If you know Scrabble – or let’s be real, if you know Words with Friends, then you can guess the problem. Yep, he creamed me all the time (except for when he’d try to use made up words, I can still call him out pretty quickly on that BS in Boggle, too). But then, something happened. The light bulb went on in my head that maybe I could play for awesome words (especially in those tight places) AND for points. Suddenly, I wasn’t losing all the time. Gee, y’all, Scrabble is even MORE fun than I thought! (And suddenly, we stopped playing. Hahaha. Oldest child and husband are a lot alike….)

Motivation can affect a lot of what we do and how we think. I’ve found myself in game situations where I’ll start to get more tense because I’m losing or not playing well at which point I stop and think, “wait, I’m not having fun” and change my game.

Can you see how this changes game play in our household? You might think that my motivation (fun vs WINWINWIN) might cause me to lose a lot of games, but it’s not as many as one would think. Motivation matters as it affects mindset.

Motivation affects mindset affects actions.

Here’s where we talk about our characters. Character motivation and therefore ultimately their actions is what drives the plot, yes? We need to know what our characters want, why they want it, and then how they will get it. This is actually 75% of what writers call a “logline”. The other 25% indicates what stand in their way. 75% is a big deal; it’s what keeps us reading.

Consider Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Ignoring the debate on the whole issue behind Rowling inserting a whole new mythology at the last second, let’s instead look at how it affected our journey with Harry. We get to the end of book 6 and into book 7 and we know what it is that Harry must do. Ron ditches Harry for a bit, but Harry is motivated by his determination to destroy these horcruxes once and for all, in spite of temporarily losing the support of one of his very best friends. But what happens when Harry discovers the Hallows? He wavers. And thus, because we believe in him, we waver with him.

What if, in the end, Voldemort held Ron and Hermione captive and Harry had to make a choice between saving them, and killing Voldemort once and for all? Up until the end, Harry has shown us to be, at the least, brave and willing to self-sacrifice. But what if self-sacrifice wasn’t an option? Would his motivation change? Would we understand and go with him if it did or did not change?

Star Trek II showed us that Spock’s mindset was that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and then Star Trek III turned it right around and showed Kirk’s mindset as the opposite, in order to help his friend. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Would it have been as effective if Kirk had shared Spock’s motivation?

As I look at my own writing, I discover that frequently my protagonist’s relationship to another character is what catalyzes her changed motivation and subsequent actions. In one story my protagonist’s primary motivation is to simply get by without worrying about being in the spotlight. In fact, she gets back together with a boyfriend who has far bigger aspirations than she does and that’s fine by her. But then she becomes guardian to her niece and nephew and discovers that just floating by is not enough. She wants more for them and a part of her wants them to see that she is more than she is. And this subsequently changes that relationship with the boyfriend.

In my current WIP my character’s motivation is to keep moving  – she has a past she can’t afford to be revealed – and so she chooses jobs for their “fix-it” traits. Get in, get the train on the right track, then clock out of there. (How mixed is that metaphor?) However, she gets involved with someone and slowly, the motivation shifts. Her mindset moves to “have I got what it takes to have staying power?” And what will this mean if she does stay put?

We can say story trumps all, but directly connected to story is how that character drives it. A common question writers (and agents, editors, etc) ask is “what are the stakes?” This, basically, leads to motivation>mindset>actions. If we can’t understand or relate to the motivation, we as readers lose interest. In many cases, that shift in what motivates a character can be the key to amping up the emotional ante.

As I work on my current WIP, this is the question that I continually keep in mind. What does my character want? Why does she want it? Then, later, even before I figure out how she gets it, what happens to affect what she wants? What obstacles can I throw her way to test that motivation?

And you? Do you have a clear mindset on what your character’s motivation is? Or, as a reader, have you run into a situation where this was not clear? If so, how did it affect the story?

For my video, I thought of a couple options. I decided to go with Ben from Parks and Recreation who, during the negotiations with Gryzzl, remembers the foundation of his game, The Cones of Dunshire… which changes everything. (Runner up video: Data from Star Trek the Next Generation and how he shifts his game play of chess in that he doesn’t try to win, instead he aims for a stalemate.)



This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Character: It’s All About the Motivation

  1. Jen (@JSQ79) says:

    I love middle child- 8 was his favorite number. Too sweet. This was a timely post for me. I’m working through some revisions on a novel and I’ve realized that one of my big issues is muddled character motivation. Thank you for giving me more to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathleen says:

    I’m working on character motivation right now, and I think the hardest part is coming up with a motivation that’s not cliche…something that stands out.


Leave a Reply to Jen (@JSQ79) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s