Why Your Character’s Motive Matters

How to Find Powerful Motives for Your Characters

Why Your Character’s Motive MattersYou will often be judged by what you do. To a large extent, you are what you do. However, because others’ perceptions of your actions don’t penetrate to the reasons behind your actions,  you will often be judged incorrectly, or even unjustly. It’s no different for your characters.

In a book, as much as in life, a person’s actions are crucial. Readers want to understand your character by seeing what he does. However, often, it’s your character’s motive that matters even more.

It’s Not What Your Characters Do That Matters—It’s What They Mean to Do

Characters and Viewpoint Orson Scott CardIn his book Characters & Viewpoint, bestselling science-fiction author Orson Scott Card explains:

Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts. What a character does, no matter how awful or how good, is never morally absolute: What seemed to be murder may turn out to have been self-defense, madness, or illusion; what seemed to be a kiss may turn out to have been betrayal, deception, or an irony… A character is what he does, yes—but even more, a character is what he means to do.

Creating characters who act in exciting and larger-than-life ways is wonderful, but unless these characters also have a reason for these actions, they will ultimately fail to capture readers’ attention. Giving characters a motive (which inevitably extends to a goal, which hopefully inspires an immediate obstacle, which fortunately creates innate conflict) is vital.

>For more about the role motive, goal, and conflict play in scene structure, click here.

Without an awareness of Raskolnikov’s motive, reprehensible as it is, for killing the old woman in Fyodor Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment, readers would never have stuck around for 600 pages.

Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment

If we didn’t understand that Jane Austen’s titular Emma had good intentions behind her blundering interference in her friends’ lives, we would have abandoned her after a few chapters.

Emma Jane Austen BBC 2009 Romola Garai

Even characters, such as Luke Skywalker or Clark Kent, whose actions are definably good, become boring unless we understand the motives behind their behavior.

What Is the Role of Theme in a Story's Climax

The Secret to Interesting Characters? Interesting Motives

It’s not enough to create characters who do interesting things. They must also do them for interesting reasons.

This is a principle that allows authors all kinds of exciting space to play. We can match motive to action to present a straightforward character (such as Luke Skywalker), but we can also create infinite layers of complexity and intrigue by presenting a character whose actions and motives don’t always seem to align (such as Bruce Wayne).

Motives and actions aren’t always clear in real life. Becoming aware of—and taking advantage of—these complex dichotomies can raise your fiction to a whole new level by deepening your characters, creating subplots, and, perhaps most importantly, offering readers stories they can sink their teeth into and chew on.

Orson Scott Card sums up nicely:

We never fully understand other people’s motives in real life. In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motives with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post. Life would be easier if we could understand the movtives of people as well as we understand the fictional characters we have come to love.

  2. Yes, indeed. Understanding motives can allow us to enjoy, or at least understand, even seemingly unlikable characters, such as Scarlett O’Hara and Pip Pirrip.

  3. And a fun part is subtly working that motive into the prose, possibly in Act 1.

    Let’s not just do a “motive dump.” As the author, we should know the motive(s), but work in the revelation so the reader can wonder, “Why did he do that?”

  4. Sometimes it’s interesting to write a character who doesn’t necessarily know *why* he behaves the way he does. We’ve all done things for which we couldn’t really pinpoint a definite motive. Why shouldn’t our characters occasionally do the same?

  5. Great post. The underlying motive sometimes is what makes a book worth reading. As a reader, I have stayed with a book through hundreds of pages and waited to find the motive. If it’s a valid motive, I find the book worth the time vested. If not, I might just cross that author of my reading list.

  6. A worthy motive can make us care about a character whose actions would otherwise be repulsive. Revenge stories are a prime example. We may not condone the character’s actions, but after watching the suffering that created his motive for mayhem, we can certainly understand and even empathize with him.

  7. Deb Dixon’s book, Goal, Motivation & Conflict is an excellent resource for making sure your character’s doing the ‘right’ thing. Motivation is one of the Big Three to keep in mind when writing.

    • I encourage every writer to read Debra Dixon’s book. I went to a class she presented where she showed how G, M or C in every chapter makes your story work. She read part of her work and a lot of us had tears in our eyes.

  8. Sounds like an excellent book. I’m off to check it out!

  9. Hey, K.M!

    This was a really interesting post, since I’m trying to find out the motive for the things my characters do in my current WiP. This article gave me the perfect reason, so I thank you for that.

    Also, I’ll definitely pick up that book, because it seems to be a lot of help with characters and viewpoints.

    So, now I’m off to Amazon, but write on!

  10. It’s an excellent book by an excellent author.

  11. It wasn’t until I took a recent course that I understood the need for motives. I had them in most of what I wrote, but this way now I know why! Thank you!

  12. Motives are one of those things that we often instinctively grasp without even realizing why. Most characters seem to come complete with motives. Our job is just making sure they’re *good* motives.

  13. It’s not what they do, but why. That is almost story in a nutshell – why did so-and-so do that? Especially if, as you say in one of your comments, the character isn’t aware of why they behave the way they do. That always makes for an interesting story.

  14. Motive is such an invisible entity and it’s only been due to the frequent bombardment of “Why did he do this?” comments by my critters that I’ve shifted to a focus on revealing character motivations. This article really simply and easily reveals that.

  15. @dirtywhitecandy: Almost all of my characters are the result of an initial intriguing action and my need to sate my curiosity about *why* this character would act in this way.

    @Shannon: The “why” behind a character’s actions can be one of the biggest and most intriguing hooks and, if you follow it through, one of the most explosive reveals in the ending.

  16. Absolutely – this is excellent advice. Actually, I’ve been struggling with this in my own WiP. All the character have very definite motives, except the most important of all – the main character. I need her to go through a transition of sort – from being a “equipment” used by someone, to taking control over the situation and changing it (by discovering her own motives and abilities). Actually, writing that down helped clarify it a little bit in my mind (even if it might still sound very vague to others). Now I only need to find out how to do this…

    Great topic, though 🙂

  17. Often, if we can identify the character’s greatest weakness, we find the strength he needs to achieve by looking for the weakness’s opposite. Then it’s just a matter of giving the character corresponding obstacles to overcome and incentive enough to want to overcome them.

  18. I am having problems with that right now. One of my charries is a renegade–his reasons for turning evil are definate and everything–but he HAS to turn good again and I can’t find a compelling way to make that happen.

  19. The desire for redemption, in itself, fueled by guilt or love, is often one of the more clear-cut motives.

  20. But he’s perfectly happy in rebellion. Not to mention that he switches to the “loosing” side of a genocide

  21. It’s hard to be to offer anything concrete without knowing the character or the story, but you might want to start with figuring out what’s matters most in the world to this character, and then using it to break him. Once he’s broken, he’ll be able to see a lot of things more clearly. Then you can either use the thing that matters most as motivation for his return to the good side, or use his new mindset to help him find a new priority.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Motive is not the deepest level of creation. Actions are born out of motives which in turn are born out of intentions.

    Intention is the deepest level. You can see motive through action, but intention might not float to a sensory level.

  23. Good point. Sometimes we don’t even know exactly *what* we’re intending on a conscious level.

  24. Thanks for the post! Motives are really a wonderful way to deepen characters!

  25. Yes, they’re intrinsic. If the character doesn’t have a compelling motive, his whole arc falls apart.

  26. Action is pointless without a reason behind it. 🙂
    But that revelation just makes the current world we are living in harder to understand 🙁
    That’s why, fiction (at least for me) is a great way to escape. At least there we understand all what is going on. And the things we don’t, it is actually just another way of its writer’s to add depth in it.

    And this pointless reply is given because it hit right on the spot for me. I was just banging my head over someone’s action which I didn’t understood.

  27. Yup! totally agreed. That’s why a bundle of pages filled with lies of writers minds are so popular and profitable market 😀

  28. Great article and very timely for my writing group.

    Motivations can and often do change as characters evolve (move through their character arc) and deal with conflict. For example, a character may start out with the motivation to gain the love (or expression of it) from a difficult parent, but those efforts may cause conflict with the spouse. That may result in a new motivation focused on the spouse and ultimately may lead, via the character arc, to a realization about the nature of their relationship with the parent AND the spouse.

    Figuring out motivation (and conflict) is a way to map the logical cause and effect of your story. It can help you avoid random events, mcguffins, deus ex machina endings, and even, in some cases, Mary Sue characters. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Within the same character arc, the character’s motive should never *change* so much as be *refined.* The character’s exterior motive may seem to change, but there’s still an underlying primal motive that was driving the exterior motives all along. In your example, the underlying motive that exists in regards to both the parental and spousal relationship could be something deeper such as wanting to be at peace with himself or wanting to raise his low self-esteem.

      • I agree to an extent. That’s awfully high (macro) level planning and as such is more nebulous. In my experience, novice writers are more likely to lose track of it as the actual writing commences unless they translate it to practical /familiar motivation steps in their planning.

        High level motivation is usually related to the throughline, so when I do my planning, I don’t tend to think of it in the terms you suggested. The motivation step is more ground-level planning for me. But that is the great thing about story planning–it’s a flexible tool that can be tailored by the individual to fit her thought processes. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The deep primal motivations are the foundation for the Lie in the character arc, so I would argue that they’re a crucial foundation for the story, especially when the character’s exterior motives are changing. The more realized the deeper motivations are, the stronger the plot/theme connection can be.

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