Understanding a Character’s Motivation

Last week, I wrote about the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing, and I know it wasn’t easy to read. One of those sins was poor character development, and let’s be real, we’ve all been there.

Now, if you’re a Pantser and you’re knee-deep in your first draft, you don’t give much thought to your characters’ motivations. But trust me, it’ll come back to bite you in the butt during rewrites. That’s why you need to understand the crucial points in developing a character’s motivation. 

For those who are Plotters (like me), you know how easy it is to get carried away with character development. But let’s focus on the basics and the most important points. 

Developing a character with a clear and compelling motivation is an essential aspect of crafting a successful story. A character’s motivation drives their actions, defines their relationships, and makes them relatable to the audience.

Here Are 5 Crucial Factors to Consider When Getting Clear About a Character’s Motivation:

#1 – Needs vs. Wants.
In any story, characters are driven by two main motivations: their needs and their wants. Needs are essential for survival, such as food, shelter, and safety, while wants are desires that may not be necessary for survival but can significantly impact a character’s actions and decisions.

When crafting a character’s motivation, it’s crucial to differentiate between their needs and wants because the level of urgency and intensity of their actions will vary. Needs are often more critical and must be met for survival, while wants may drive a character’s personal goals and desires.

In the movie “Cast Away,” the protagonist Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks, is initially motivated by his need for survival after being stranded on a deserted island. His primary goal is to stay alive and find a way to escape the island, and his actions are driven by his need for food, shelter, and water. Later in the movie, his motivation shifts towards his want for companionship when he develops a relationship with a volleyball he names Wilson. The difference between his needs and wants drives the narrative and creates tension and conflict within the story.

#2 – Internal vs. External Motivation.
These are two distinct categories of character motivation. Internal motivations come from within, like a character’s personal beliefs, values, desires, and emotions. Think of it as their inner fire. 

On the other hand, external motivations come from outside factors, like societal expectations, rewards, or even external forces or circumstances. Like a carrot on a stick, it’s something outside of the character that motivates them to act. 

Understanding the difference between internal and external motivations is crucial because it helps you develop a character’s personality and create a believable character arc. With this knowledge, you can create nuanced characters that resonate with your audience and keep them hooked until the very end. 

In the movie “The Social Network,” the protagonist Mark Zuckerberg is motivated by both internal and external factors. Externally, he is motivated by his desire for success and recognition as the creator of Facebook. Internally, he is motivated by his need to prove his worth and to be seen as a valuable member of society, despite his social awkwardness and lack of interpersonal skills.

#3 – Conflicts and Obstacles.
Conflicts are the central issues or problems that a character must face and overcome in order to achieve their goals. These conflicts can be external or internal, and they can range from interpersonal conflicts with other characters to larger-scale conflicts with societal or cultural norms.

Obstacles, on the other hand, are the specific challenges or barriers that a character must overcome in order to achieve their goals. These obstacles can be physical, emotional, or psychological in nature, and they are often related to the conflicts that the character is facing. For example, if a character is trying to save their family from a burning building, the obstacle might be a locked door or a collapsing floor.

Understanding the difference between conflicts and obstacles is essential because it helps you to craft more compelling and nuanced characters. By creating well-defined conflicts and obstacles, you can challenge your characters in meaningful ways that reveal their strengths, weaknesses, and values.

Furthermore, conflicts and obstacles can be used to reveal a character’s motivations and desires. For example, a character who is motivated by a desire for power may face conflicts and obstacles related to their pursuit of power, such as political opposition or personal betrayal. Similarly, a character who is motivated by a desire for love may face obstacles and conflicts related to their romantic relationships, such as a disapproving family member or a rival love interest.

Arthur Fleck In the movie “Joker,” is motivated by his desire for recognition and acceptance as a stand-up comedian. However, he faces numerous obstacles, including rejection, ridicule, and mental illness, which eventually drive him to become the Joker, a villainous character who seeks revenge against society.

#4 – Character Flaws.
We all have our own flaws, and our characters should too. Character flaws are negative qualities or traits that a character possesses, whether it’s a physical limitation or an emotional struggle. It could be something as simple as being clumsy or as complex as having a crippling fear of failure. These flaws can create problems for the character and those around them, which makes for great storytelling.

Understanding a character’s flaws is crucial because it allows you to create more complex and realistic characters that audiences can relate to and empathize with. Think about it – we connect with characters that are flawed because we see ourselves in them. Plus, character flaws can provide insight into a character’s motivations, beliefs, and values. It helps us understand why they act the way they do, which is essential in building a believable character.

And let’s not forget about the conflict! Character flaws can create tension and conflict within the narrative as characters struggle to overcome their flaws or deal with the consequences of their actions. It makes for compelling storytelling and keeps the audience engaged.

In the movie “Black Swan,” the protagonist Nina Sayers’ character flaw is her perfectionism and obsession. Nina is a talented ballerina who is chosen to play the lead in a production of “Swan Lake,” but her intense focus and desire for perfection begin to consume her. Her obsession with her role and the pressure to perform ultimately drives her to a mental breakdown.

#5 – Change and Growth.
One of the most important aspects of creating engaging and memorable characters is incorporating change and growth. Character growth occurs when a character learns from their experiences and transforms throughout the story, while character change refers to a significant shift in their personality or beliefs. 

But here’s a secret: not all characters need to change! Some can be the catalyst for transformation in those around them. Remember, without change, your story is as exciting as watching paint dry.

Understanding your character’s growth and change will help you create complex and relatable characters that your readers will love. It’s also an excellent way to reveal their motivations, values, and beliefs, which can create tension and conflict in your narrative. So, don’t be afraid to give your characters the opportunity to grow and evolve – your readers will thank you for it!

In “The Great Gatsby” the protagonist Jay Gatsby undergoes a tragic change over the course of the novel. Initially a wealthy and charismatic character, Gatsby is revealed to be a deeply flawed and unhappy man who is unable to let go of his past. Despite his attempts to win back his lost love Daisy, Gatsby ultimately realizes that his dream of happiness is impossible, leading to his

In Conclusion – by considering these 5 key elements, you’ll be able to craft characters that your readers will love and connect with. Always keep in mind that characters are the heart of your story, and understanding their motivations will help you tell their story in the most compelling way possible

Now it’s YOUR TURN – What are some examples of well-developed characters in your favourite books or movies?

Would love to get your input in the comment box below.

2 thoughts on “Understanding a Character’s Motivation”

  1. Bradford Richardson

    Vered, excellent descriptions & visual examples of Character Motivations. You’re so right, the better a writer understands their characters before starting to write the story, the stronger the story will resonate with an audience. Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top