Why do heroes and villains do what they do?
In Part 1 of this article, we explored Greed, Revenge, and Acceptance, three of the most powerful motivations in literature.
Now, let’s find out how you can you can create fascinating characters driven by the need for Identity, Love, or Survival.
I is for Identity
Who am I? That question lies at the core of countless stories.
A character driven to establish their identity often begins the story in a negative place, and then has a moment of clarity that tells them why they need to fundamentally change who they are. This is a common motivation for characters just starting out in life who strive to become someone better. It also works for mature characters who have fallen from grace and need to redeem themselves.
Young adult characters trying to establish their identity often come into conflict with parents, teachers, and friends who are growing in different directions.
Identity is also the motivation driving a character who is heir to a “throne” (literal or figurative) that he or she doesn’t want. The character often casts off the fate that has been preordained for them and sets off on their own path, to establish their own identity.
Identity can also be a rich source of conflict when society imposes a stereotype on a character, telling them that they have to “be” a certain way. Consequently, the character must struggle to prove their individuality. This can be a tricky motivation to pull off without falling into clichés. But if done right, it can be deeply moving.
In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the heroine begins as an ordinary shopkeeper who has always regarded sorcerers with undisguised awe. But when her newfound magical powers make her a sorceress in her own right, she struggles to fit into her new identity.
Identity also often plays a part in heroic characters who are trying to make the world a better place, whether by improving society, elevating humanity, or stamping out a widespread problem. In many cases, the character’s true motivation arises from their personal quest to establish or change their identity.
L is for Love
Where would fiction be without characters motivated by love?
Romantic love is by far the most common type in fiction. But it’s also important to remember that “love” in the truest sense can also extend to the love of your friends, your family, your hometown, your country, or any other person, place, or thing.
Love is a powerful motivator. You can make any character go to great lengths simply by threatening someone, something, or someplace that the character loves.
This happens all the time in my books. Greyson, the love interest, must risk his life and even his mortal soul to save the heroine, Dru. Of course, because she also loves him, she just as often saves him in turn. These characters are series regulars, so their love is a continuing source of conflict.
Don’t write off love as a motivation for villains, either. A villain motivated by love can become not only a tragic figure by the end of the story, but also completely sympathetic and unforgettable to the reader.
S is for Survival
One of the most primal motivations, survival is at the core of most action-driven stories. For pulse-pounding excitement, not much can beat watching a sympathetic character struggle to survive against overwhelming odds.
In any science fiction, fantasy, horror, or adventure story featuring a monster with gnashing teeth, the motivation is starkly clear: don’t get eaten. It’s as simple as that.
The survival motivation also kicks in whenever a character becomes lost in the wilderness, shipwrecked, or otherwise stranded far from civilization. Plus, anytime a character is imprisoned, kidnapped, taken hostage, or captured, survival is at the core of your story.
In my Dru Jasper series, the characters are constantly faced with monsters, demons, evil sorcerers, and other deadly forces of darkness. Even though the series takes place in and around the city of Denver, there are plenty of dark alleys, abandoned warehouses, and even the isolated valleys of the nearby Rocky Mountains where the heroes must struggle to survive.
Survival can also be used metaphorically when a character’s career or marriage is at stake. The threat of losing a job or a spouse can feel like a threat to their survival, and drive a character to extremes. What new facets of the character will be revealed when they come face-to-face with their own mortality?
Exercise: What Motivates Your Character?
Pick a character from your story and ask yourself these questions. Write down the answers in your notebook. Think in terms of hypotheticals: what could happen in your story, compared to what’s actually happening. That will get your brain primed to come up with new ideas.
1. What would this character learn or change about their own identity, if they could? How might society expect them to behave in a way that goes against their nature?
2. Who or what does this character love more than anything? A friend, family member, or romantic interest? Who or what would this character do anything to save?
3. What could threaten this character’s life, if not literally, then metaphorically??
To recap, the most powerful motivations are: Greed, Revenge, Acceptance, Identity, Love, and Survival.
Think about one of your favorite stories or books. What motivates the villain? How about the hero?
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