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The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation (Part 1)

ultimate guide to character motivationDo you know the real reasons why your characters do what they do? You should.

Without a rock-solid motivation, your characters risk coming across as boring and flat. But if you can give your characters intriguing motivations, you can write a story that truly resonates with readers. That’s because motivation is the engine that powers character-driven stories.

Plus, it’s fun and easy to figure out what makes a character tick. In this two-part article, I’ll show you how.

If you’ve read any of my other columns here on Fiction University, you know that I’m a big believer in acronyms. An acronym not only breaks down complicated concepts clearly and simply, it also helps you remember. The acronym I use for the most common motivations – and here you can imagine the knights of the round table questing after the Holy Grail, if you like – is GRAILS:

  • G is for Greed
  • R is for Revenge
  • A is for Acceptance
  • I is for Identity
  • L is for Love
  • S is for Survival

You can tap into these powerful motivations to enhance your story. Here’s how.

G is for Greed

Greed can be an insidious kind of motivation, not only for your villains, but for your heroes as well.

The most blatant kind of greed rears its head in stories revolving around a bag full of filthy cash. (I’m as guilty as anyone. My thriller The Spider Thief involves not only a briefcase containing a million dollars, but also a cursed spider idol made of solid gold.)

At its heart, greed is all about lusting after something that you don’t possess, especially for selfish reasons. When you think of it that way, a character could be greedy for much more than money: fame, status, power, accolades, you name it. How far will this character go to get it?

Often, the character will justify their greed with good intentions: “We can use this money to fix the roof over the orphanage . . . and also buy a yacht!” An oversimplification, obviously, but you get the idea.

To create conflict in your story, pit your character’s greed against everything else they value: their job, their friends, their home, their relationships, their health, their safety. Each time your character chooses the object of their desire over someone or something else, they dig a little bit deeper into a moral hole.

Greed is all about gaining power for your own benefit, rather than for the benefit of others. As we’ve all been told, power corrupts. The question is, how far down this journey of darkness will your character ultimately go? Will they learn their lesson, or meet a tragic fate?

R is for Revenge

Revenge is a common motivation in fiction, but you have to be careful how you write a hero driven by vengeance. The storyline can quickly turn dark, and you risk losing the audience’s sympathy for your character. To avoid that problem, follow this simple guide:

1. The villain’s crime needs to be so severe that it ruins the hero’s life. It can’t be a minor transgression. The villain must be responsible for a catastrophe that causes the hero to lose something vital, such as a career or a loved one.

2. The hero should try every possible avenue to handle things lawfully, even if those efforts ultimately fail. But the authorities are powerless, corrupt, or nonexistent. For example, think of many Old West settings.

3. Eventually, the hero has no choice but to take matters into his or her own hands. In the end, a conventional hero is driven not just to make the villain suffer, but to set things right again. In that way, the hero is actually driven not just by revenge but by the desire for justice.

Of course, you’re free to toss all of those rules out the window and write about an antihero hell-bent on punishing the villain at all costs. Just know that you’ll have to work that much harder to keep the reader’s sympathies with the hero.

Villains, on the other hand, can be motivated by revenge to great effect. To make your villain even more despicable, invert the three steps above:

1. Have the villain seek revenge for a minor (even accidental or imagined) slight.

2. Have the villain deliberately skirt the law to seek revenge.

3. Give the villain an opportunity to walk away, but instead the villain goes to great lengths to make the hero suffer, just for his or her own satisfaction.

You can strengthen your hero’s motivation if the villain’s threat extends to innocent people the hero cares about. A villain who doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire can cause a great deal of collateral damage. How far is the hero willing to go to stop a villain hell-bent on revenge?

A is for Acceptance

Human beings have a fundamental need to feel like we belong. In ancient societies, becoming an outcast was an almost certain death sentence. We are all driven to be accepted by our “people” — whether that means your hometown, your professional peers, your family, or even your softball team.

The need for acceptance often crops up when the main character moves to a new environment: a new school, a new workplace, a new town, and so on. Will this character fit in? What will they have to do to be accepted?

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the heroine begins as an outsider to the high-powered world of sorcery. But when she becomes embroiled in the struggle to stop doomsday, the established sorcerers go to take her seriously. She’s constantly struggling to prove herself as a sorceress and fit in with the other spell casters.

Acceptance also features prominently in stories where a character tries to fit in with a new family (such as a “meet the parents” situation) or rejoin a broken family (often a “prodigal son” situation).

Acceptance can cause interesting conflicts when a character pretends to be different in order to fit in. The character can only maintain the charade for so long before their true self shows through. Will others still accept the character after they find out what he or she is really like?

Another common source of conflict comes from trying to impress the wrong people. That can lead a character astray, until they realize that they can only belong in a place where people accept them for who they truly are.

Exercise: What Motivates Your Character?

Think about any character in the story you’re working on. I recommend starting with the villain, then working on the hero, and then supporting characters. Ask yourself these questions and write down the answers in your notebook:

1. What resource (money, fame, status, power, etc.) could this character crave to an unhealthy extreme? Where could a hoard of that resource exist in your story?

2. What offense might another character have committed to make this character seek revenge? It could be recent, or buried in the distant past.

3. What crowd might the character struggle to “fit in” with? Think about their family, their coworkers or schoolmates, and their friends.

Coming up: we’ll explore the motivations of Identity, Love, and Survival in The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation, Part 2.

When it comes to motivation, which character do you struggle with the most: the hero, the villain, or someone else? 

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