Hang in here with me, peeps. This is a two part piece, and it’s going to be a rough ride.
There are really two massive pieces to motivation: yours, as the writer, and the characters. That’s a lot to unwrap, so let’s start with the easy part.
If you’ve ever read a book on writing (And I do mean ever. Literally, a flippant google search would suffice) then you know that one of the first things they tell you about writing is “make sure your character has a goal”. What do they want? Blah..blah…blah. I’m over it, and here’s why.
They never give it any deeper meaning.
In Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, she talks about how to create a hero who is
“interesting, memorable, and relatable, a hero whom readers want to read about…”(Brody, 9)
You do this by giving them a problem, a want, and a need.
Personally, this order makes very little sense to me. Why start with the problem? That’s so confusing. She starts by addressing the problem, or conflict, in a character’s life and asks what the character thinks will fix it, and then asks what would actually fix it.
Why start with a problem when you can start with a person?
Let me give you an example.
I have a character who wants to become a famous cellist. She’s talented and could do it, but that’s what she wants. She works every day, practicing for hours. She irritates her neighbors with the noise, thinks about it when she goes to work, races home to try the new idea in her head…HAVE I BORED YOU YET? Jesus, I’m bored.
And this is how many writers start characters, which is great, but there has to be more.
- What do they want? (External)
- Why do they want it? (Internal)
- Why don’t they have it yet? (Conflict)
The Steps to Character Motivation: An Example
- She wants to be a cellist.
- Because when she was little, her mom was always at work but the neighbor in the apartment next to them played every night and it helped her sleep. This built an relationship in her mind that cello music = good things.
- Why hasn’t she already completed her goal?
- This is where I usually work on age, appearance, history. What stopped the character from getting what they want?
- She went to uni for music after they offered her a scholarship. She did wonderfully, but she was afraid. Young musician with little support, she panicked at the first audition for the orchestra she wanted to be in, and is now afraid she’ll do the same thing again.
Oh oh oh. It’s starting to look like a novel. You can go four directions from here. For information on that, you’ll have to check out my post on North, South, East, or West: the 4 outcomes of everything. Personally, I’d probably have her find inspiration in pop music and blend it with the classic. Like the Piano Guys or Lindsey Sterling.
But the original point here, was that in order for your character to have true motivation, there always has to be a reason somewhere in their history. Humans (should I say people? Characters? Beings? whatev).
Psychologically, humans make decisions based on their experiences. I’m not going to wake up one day and just decide that I want to run a marathon, train for it, and miraculously get through it.
I used to get violently nauseous on the way to gym in elementary school, because the idea of running laps made me sick. I wasn’t afraid of running. I was afraid of being embarrassed, because a physical deformity in my hip made me slower than everyone else. To this day, I hate running. So I’m not going to wake up and just decide to run a marathon without a damn good reason.
…Did you see it? Right there. Look up and reread that paragraph. Didn’t I just give you a perfect reason that one day I actually could wake up and train for a marathon? To overcome an obstacle?
That’s because negative associations are just as important to the human mind as positive associations. So whatever your reason that your character wants something, just make sure you can back it up with their history.
Examples from published works:
Inej in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows
- Wants a ship of her own so she hunt down and get rid of slavers.
- She was kidnapped and sold as a slave to the Menagerie.
- She has to have money to buy a ship, and can’t until she’s paid her debt to the Crows.
Celeana in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass
- Wants her freedom
- Because she was imprisoned in Endovier (yea I know there’s more but it’s basic bc I don’t like spoilers)
- She has to compete as the Prince’s champion, win the competition, then serve her time for the King.
Katniss in Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games
- Wants to return home to her sister.
- Because their mother is pretty much useless, and she has to take care of them.
- She has to win the Games.
Now these are all overview motivations. They are motivations that kick start the main conflict in each character’s story.
What do they want?
Brody does get it right when she writes “The most effective character goals or wants are concrete and tangible. The reader should be able to know if and when your hero gets what they want.” (Brody, 12)
So make sure what they want is concrete: to complete a marathon, to escape prison, to buy a house, to have a million dollars.
NOT: to be successful (what defines success?), to be the best cellist (define best?), to be happy (this is such a lazy want, guys. Do I need to explain this one?)
Why do they want this?
What happened in the character’s history that makes them think this is the answer? Why is this so important? Is it a positive or negative association to their past? An obstacle that represents an emotion? (like the marathon represented my fear of embarrassment)
Don’t even worry about making this so technical. That’s just my style, my thought process.
What do they want? Now tell me a story about why.
Why don’t they have it yet?
You know physics, right? For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction? Same thing. Your character wants something. They think they need this thing. If it was easy, they’d already have it. (This is technically called “conflict”). So what struggles have they faced along the way? Why are they still struggling? And what is the next obstacle they’ll have to overcome to get what they want?
If you do this 1, 2, 3 method for every character, every scene, then you have the beginnings of a truly fantastic story.
Happy Writing, Lovelies