7 Tips to Craft Compelling Character Motivation in Fiction

From KMW: As “the lie that tells the truth,” fiction only works when it is able to present a reasonable facsimile of reality. At the level of plot, it does this by creating a string of causes and effects that feel plausible. The foundation of this plausibility is the greatest “cause” of them all: character motivation.

There are many ways to approach character motivation. You might start with the motive and see what actions result. Or you might start out knowing what you want to see happen in the plot, then work backward to determine a reasonable motive for such actions. Either way, if the character’s motive works, then so will the plot. If not, the whole story will be in jeopardy.

Today, I’m happy to share with you a post from editor and author C.S. Lakin, in which she dives into some foundational considerations for choosing and fleshing out the best motivations for your characters and your plot.

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In the vast world of fiction, characters are the lifeblood of every story. Whether you’re writing a short story or embarking on an epic novel, crafting compelling characters is essential for drawing readers into your world. Among the myriad elements that make up a character’s identity, motivation stands at the forefront. Character motivation serves as the driving force behind actions, decisions, and evolution throughout your narrative.

But how can you ensure that your characters’ motivations are not only engaging but will also resonate deeply with your readers?

7 Tips to Craft Can’t-Look-Away Character Motivation

Let’s look at seven invaluable tips to help you create characters who not only come alive on the page but who also stay with your readers long after they’ve finished reading the last page.

1. Avoid Useless and Boring Descriptions

Characterization begins with your characters’ physical and emotional attributes, but it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of generic descriptions. Instead, immerse readers in the character’s point of view (POV). By describing characters through the lens of your characters’ thoughts, emotions, and experiences, you make them relatable and breathe life into your storytelling.

Instead of providing a laundry list of physical traits, allow your protagonist to shape the description based on their perspective, mood, emotions, and experiences. Let readers see other characters as your protagonist does, filtered through the narrator’s unique voice and personality. This approach not only enhances character depth but also immerses readers in the protagonist’s world.

2. Motivation Is Everything

Motivation serves as the backbone of every character’s journey in your story, from the protagonist to the antagonist and even the secondary characters. Motivation is the invisible force driving their actions and decisions. It’s the heartbeat of your narrative.

Begin by understanding that every character, regardless of their role, must possess a clear and believable motivation. Your protagonist’s inner motivation creates propulsion toward an overarching goal, while the antagonist’s motivation needs to create obstacles to the protagonist’s progress.

Start by identifying your characters’ primary motivations, which align with their visible goals within the story. This motivation should be rooted in past experiences, personality traits, and background. Characters should never act on a whim or without reason. Instead, their actions should emerge naturally from their intrinsic drives and external circumstances. Let that motivation drive the plot from start to finish.

3. Put In the Work

Creating well-motivated characters demands dedication and effort. Avoid shortcuts and resist the temptation to take the easy route of vague motivations such as “they just feel like it.” As a writer, you owe it to readers to deliver more than superficial characters who act without reason.

To infuse depth into your characters, invest time in exploring their past, wounds, fears, passions, and beliefs. Recognize that the process of character development is an essential aspect of writing fiction. If you’re serious about storytelling, commit to the laborious task of constructing multidimensional characters.

4. Give Characters Room to Breathe

While it’s crucial to invest in thorough character development, you don’t need to create exhaustive character biographies before you start writing. Allow your characters room to evolve naturally during the writing process. Sometimes characters surprise you with their actions and insights as you let them breathe on the page.

Writing is a dynamic partnership between the author and the characters. Provide enough depth and background to bring your characters to life but also give them freedom to grow within the context of your scenes. This balance ensures that your characters remain true to their core motivations while evolving organically throughout the story.

5. Focus on the Big Picture—Premise and Core Need

Effective character development begins with a deep understanding of your character’s primary motivation and how it aligns with the story’s premise. Your characters’ goal is the central focus of your plot, and their inner motivation serves as the driving force that propels them toward achieving that goal. Every scene should seamlessly align with this overarching motivation.

Distinguish between your character’s inner motivation (core need) and their goal-driven motivation. The core need is an integral aspect of personality and subconscious motivation, while the goal-driven motivation is tied directly to the external plot.

6: Explore the Wound

To create truly compelling characters, delve into their past experiences and emotional wounds that shape their motivations. Consider the emotional and psychological scars that influence their fears, insecurities, and behaviors.

Take a moment to reflect on your own life and consider what motivates your goals. Apply this introspection to your characters. Understand that their pasts, upbringing, and life events are the ingredients that contribute to their unique motivations.

7. Keep It Relatable—The Three M’s

The easiest way to remember all these points is to reflect on the 3 M’s: Mindset, Motivation, and Mood. These elements provide readers with immediate insight into your character’s state of mind, what drives them, and their emotional context.

1. Mindset

Portray your character’s current state of mind, attitude, and immediate concerns. Avoid creating characters who are entirely carefree or devoid of inner conflicts. A character’s mindset should be influenced by motivations and past experiences.

2. Motivation

Convey why your character is taking specific actions or pursuing certain goals. Everything your character does should be rooted in sound motivations that are informed by past experiences and personality traits.

3. Mood

Reflect your character’s mood through thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Connect mood to mindset, highlighting how the character’s inner world influences behavior.

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Crafting character motivation is an art form that enhances your storytelling. These seven tips provide a roadmap for creating characters that not only captivate readers but also drive your plot forward and emotionally attach readers to your characters. Characters with well-defined motivations are the heart of a compelling story. Invest the time and effort needed to bring them to life on the page, and watch as your readers become deeply engaged in the worlds you create.

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C.S. Lakin is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (which includes more than 10 books in her Writer’s Toolbox series). Her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than 5,000 fiction writers improve their craft. To go deep into creating great settings and evoking emotions in your characters, and to learn essential technique, enroll in Lakin’s courses Crafting Powerful Settings and Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Her blog Live Write Thrive has more than 1 million words of instruction for writers, so hop on over and level-up your writing!

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

  2. Very helpful article. I’m glad you stressed motivation as I, too, think that is so important. Things that a character does in a story that has no motivation always make me stop and shake my head. Also appreciate the distinction between internal and external motivation. That’s always a good one to keep in mind.

    • Yes, it’s painfully obvious when this happens in poorly written movies and more particularly episodic television. In a TV series, they often force characters to do something to make things happen and stretch through another episode.

      My wife and I turn to each other and say “Why would he/she (character) do that? That doesn’t make sense.”

    • Glad this is helpful. Too often scenes don’t showcase the motivation and so the scene feels purposeless.

  3. Thanks for the great article! This is something I struggle with, and am just now diving into, so it’s extremely helpful to find tips and how-to’s.

  4. Grace Marie says

    I am glad you mentioned that a person can do the work retroactively-know what the characters do, then work backwards for the ‘why’. That’s what I ended up doing for my villian, and it made the story much richer. Turns out a lot of what happened was because he and his chief henchman had clashing goals.

    • Yes, working in the motivation after the scene is written is doable, but it’s so much easier to first write the scene with that motivation clear and displayed in the first few paragraphs.

  5. Are character motivations like character wants/needs? For me, I identified 9 character wants/needs (which are also represented by external things–for example, a character might want a prestigious job for significance, but needs someone who loves them) : Adventure (variety/excitement), Certainty (self-sufficiency), Love, Awe (boundaries/authority/rules), Life Balance (flow), control, peace, security (dependency/relying on others), or significance (respect, honor)

    • Hi Ellie,
      Good points. It reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy / Pyramid.

      • I actually base it on the Enneagram–my theory is that each type feels a void with a certain feeling and that is the feeling they seek the most–when they seek it only through external means it becomes destructive, and when they learn to find it within themselves through understanding and connection it balances them out.
        type 1=awe, type 2=love, type 3=balance/beauty/flow, type 4=value/worth/significance, type 5=certainty, type 6=security, type 7=variety/adventure/excitement, type 8=control, type 9=peace

    • Hi Ellie, wants and needs drive motivation. You go to the fridge to get ice cream. You might be motivated by hunger, but maybe it’s that your friend insulted you and you’re angry and hurt, and so the motivation is to get some immediate comfort. Or you’re feeling weak in the hot sun, so your motivation is to get something cool to feel better. Think in terms of individual scenes. Yes, the overarching story contains big motivations (core need, driving toward the plot goal), but in a scene, there are objectives and goals on a smaller, immediate level, and that’s the motivation you want to bring out in the first paragraphs.

  6. Hi C.S. Lakin, I’m studying your course on Characters right now, it’s hugely useful, the assignment tasks are great and it’s really getting me focused on my own writing project. I’ve learned a lot from your 12 pillars of construction metaphor too, and your scene writing advice. Good to find you here with my other favourite writing guru!

  7. This is a perfect summary of how to write great characters. I admit that motivation is sometimes hard for me to find.

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