How to Create Character Motivations

Learn about character motivations and discover how they can help you create compelling, dynamic characters.
Table of Contents

Character motivation is one of the most important parts of character development. It's what drives your character and keeps them going throughout the story. Without a strong enough character motivation, readers won't care about what happens to your character and you'll have a hard time getting them invested in your story.

In this article, we'll go over how to create powerful character motivations, give character motivation examples, and provide answers to frequently asked questions.

What is character motivation?

A character's motivation is what drives the story from one event to the next in order to achieve the overall goal of the story. Story motivations help to keep characters moving and can create realism when realistic decisions dictate what happens next.

Motivations can be as simple as wanting revenge because someone killed his family or being motivated by her desire to impress everyone around her with how talented she is at boxing.

Why are character motivations important?

Psychology in storytelling is important. How character motivations are handled can make or break a story, so writers need to be mindful of character motivation and how it affects readers.

Motivation helps drive character actions and decisions that create tension within the story; without motivation, there would be no conflict driving the plot forward.

How to craft a character's motivation

Use the character's backstory

Backstory helps provide a context for your character's present needs, desires, wishes, and motivations. Taking note of its limitations could help you find motivation.

If you are still not satisfied with defining your character's motivation there are certain places to start working out the motivation for your work in progress.

Example #1: A character's mother has always warned her to never take up her business.

Example #2: A character desires to leave Europe and visit new places. They've never visited the most part or explored other countries so they want to see new areas.

Use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a classic way of considering human needs and desires. From basic physiological survival exigencies to psychological or existential needs, your character's motivations lie somewhere in this hierarchy.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs of Human Behavior
  • Physiological requirements: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion.
  • Safety: having a sense of security about a body, employment, health, and property.
  • Love and belonging: friendship, pets, family, and sex.
  • Esteem: self-esteem confidence, accomplishment, respect for others, and respect for oneself.
  • Self-actualization: the desire of meeting one’s full potential in life

Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is crucial in making believable motivations for your characters. Failure to understand this hierarchy may cause characters to have motivations so outrageous or ridiculous they create a disconnect from the reader due to their lack of realism.

If Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games was more worried about whether or not Peeta liked her or not while she was starving and looking for food, you would lose connection with her motivation since it doesn't make sense in terms of the hierarchy of needs.

Develop characters' motivations with new plot events

The plot and character motivations are intertwined. The character's motivation is what drives the plot forward, and new events can be used to deepen or change character motivations.

It could be something as simple as a character witnessing an event that changes their perception of the world and forces them to reconsider how they want to live their life going forward. Or it could be a major event like a character getting injured in battle which then pushes them towards making different decisions than before.

Types of character motivation

External Character Motivation

External motivations for a character are usually things that can be seen by others and come from outside sources like other characters or objects. They can't cause change on their own but work best when combined with internal character motivations.

Examples:

  • A character is poor, so they have the motivation to become wealthy.
  • A character is in disgrace, so they try to regain their honor
  • A character is hungry, so they look for something to eat.

External motivations are often referred to as "ego" motives because they serve an individual's self-interest or ego. They also overlap heavily with some social psychological concepts in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As such, this type of motivation tends not to provide good long-term plotlines unless it becomes part of a larger narrative

Internal Character Motivation

Internal motivations for a character are character-driven motivations that are not related to any external stimuli, such as money or fame. Internal character motivations often have more potential for long-term plotlines because they can conflict with other characters' motives and be tested over a longer period of time. The character is driven by their unconscious desires and needs.

Intrinsic motivations are often looser motivations that relate to feelings and thoughts. It often means the motivation of the character is coming from something within.

Examples:

  • They have the desire to explore or have extreme curiosity about the world.
  • They have a need to feel loved.
  • They are grasping for control or to retain power.
  • They are a rebel and they just need something to fight against.

These motivations can stem from unresolved emotional issues that have not been dealt with yet, such as abandonment and neglect – things that motivate them even when there is no external stimulus. This type of motivation tends to be more complex because it considers the character's internal motivations as well as aspects of plot lines.

Internal character motivation can also serve as obstacles that complicate other characters' motives from outside forces. This may not always provide good plots but these types of narratives often end up being more complex with less one-dimensional characters who only do things for money or fame.

Mixing both internal and external motivations

Combining the two types of character motivations may provide the best character development possible creating complex character motivations. This will create realistic, three-dimensional characters that readers can empathize with even if they never experienced these motivations themselves.

Character motivations in a character arc

As your character reaches the resolution of their motivation, meaning they found something to satisfy their need, this should close some kind of arc within the character. This character arc will make the character feel more complete and believable for the reader.

A character arc is what should change a character's motivation into something new. Someone who has the motivation to be wealthy can only change that motivation after they've become wealthy and learned something new about themselves or their world, or they can change their motivation through a realization that becoming wealthy was not what they actually needed in order to be fulfilled.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does the reader need to know a character's motivation?

Yes, it's important for the reader to understand why a character is doing something. It helps to give readers an understanding of what drives and motivates the character, as well as how they will react in different situations.

When should a character's motivation be revealed to the audience?

The character's motivation should be revealed to the audience as soon as possible. It should be something that is clear and concise so readers can understand why a character acts in certain ways. It'd be hard to empathize or root for a character if we have to wait too long to know what drives them.

Does every character need a motivation?

Yes, no matter how small. Every character should have some kind of motivation that drives them and gives readers a sense of character development. Even if the character's motivation is simply to survive, that should be acknowledged.

Do all character motivations have to be rational?

No, character motivations can be irrational or illogical. This can often make for an interesting character as it makes them more unpredictable and unique. Irrational motivations can also help to create a character arc as the character learns and changes through their journey.

Can a character have multiple motivations?

Yes, character motivations can be layered and complex. A character may have multiple desires that drive them, such as power and love, or a character could have different motivations for each of their actions.

It's important to remember that character motivations can evolve over time as the character learns more about themselves or the world around them.

Real people can have contradictory motivations which can create good internal conflict when they have to make a decision that goes with one of their motivations but hinders another.

Conclusion

Character motivation is the driving force behind what your character does in a story. This includes their reactions, decisions, and how they act on them. Knowing how to write good character motivations can help make a story more relatable to the reader, as character motivations can help the reader put themselves in someone else's shoes.

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Kevin Barrett Profile picture
Kevin from StoryFlint

Hello friends! I'm Kevin, the creator of StoryFlint.

I love the science of storytelling and learning how to create compelling characters, plots, themes and worlds.

I'm here to help you organize and visualize your story to make it the best it can be!

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