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

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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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  1. […] what really makes a story compelling is not so much about what the character does as it is about why the character does what he does. For more information on storytelling as well as script writing, […]

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