Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #5: Character Motivation

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We all have motivations – the things that make us do what we do. But it’s not entirely uncommon (okay, it’s really common) for writers to not put enough thought into their characters’ motivations.

After all, motivation is easy right? Bad guys are motivated by evil. Good guys are motivated by good. Easy peasy.

Not so fast! Motivation is a vital component of a successful novel. Weak motivation can not only reduce the effectiveness of your story, it can completely ruin it!

Plot-Dictated Motivation

The plot dictating the characters’ motivations is one of the worst things that can happen to your novel. You can write the most interesting twists and turns with a premise that has “bestseller” written all over it, but if the characters’ actions aren’t authentic, it will fall completely and horribly flat.

A lot of people believe that authentic actions come from well developed characters, but character development isn’t nearly as important as authentic motivation.

Suzie running into the lion’s den makes for a fascinating scene! But if the reader doesn’t believe running into the lion’s den is something Suzie is sufficiently motivated to do, it’s worse than if she had decided to stay home.

If your character makes a decision because that is the decision that moves the plot in the direction you want it to go, you may very well end up with a problem.

Writing a plot outline is great for a lot of writers, but if your character is standing with her arms crossed, shaking her head, saying “I will not do that!” – don’t make her!

Too Much Motivation

Too much motivation could also be called “wish-washy motivation” because often the motivations appear and disappear throughout the novel whenever is convenient. This happens when writers aren’t quite sure how to justify what the characters are doing so they stuff a bunch of explanations into the novel.

I should rob this store because they ripped me off. Plus this is the store that Billy the bully shops at! Plus it’s Tuesday and I always like to wreak havoc on Tuesdays. And also they sold me a moldy banana last year.

I am not saying that your character cannot have multiple motivations. Sometimes this does occur and works well (so long as it feels authentic).  But if your character constantly cites multiple reasons for their behavior (especially if their motivation flip-flops throughout scenes without a reason for the change), you could create a weakening effect where all of the motivations seem inauthentic.

Too Little Motivation

Some books (such as humor and MG) can get away with teeny-tiny helpings of motivation. But the majority of genres need a great big heap to keep the novel moving. Not multiple motivations necessarily, but strong ones.

In general, the motivation should reflect the severity of the conflict. Your character cannot murder someone because they’re motivated by wanting a ham sandwich. They can’t run away from home because Mom wouldn’t let them watch cartoons.

There are certain motivations that might seem big to the writer, but don’t feel big to the reader, such as a character being motivated by a sense of right and wrong. This leads us into the next topic:

Motivation Must Be Personal

The character’s motivation must be personal, meaning that there needs to be a reason why they are willing to fight the novel’s antagonistic force. A sense of right and wrong is not a strong enough motivator. This motivation could be shared by hundreds of other people who could solve the conflict instead. It doesn’t provide a reason why the main character has to be the protagonist.

A character motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong could be seeking revenge for the murder of his family or saving a loved one from being kidnapped. Suddenly a pretty average motivation has been turned into something highly personal.

Adding a personal motivator into the mix makes the character’s actions easier to identify with. Without one, it’s easy for readers to find the character’s decisions unbelievable. This is what you experience often in poorly written horror movies. “Why would you go in there? You have no reason to go in there! OMG the monster is in there, you idiot!”

If you look for a personal motivator in published novels, you will find that the motivator is usually to “fit in,” save a loved one, or defeat a force that only that character can defeat.

Not Dying as a Motivator

Not wanting to die is usually not a sufficient motivator on its own. Not because not dying isn’t motivating, but because everybody wants to not die. “What is that book about?” “Well, the main character doesn’t want to die.”

Not dying should be coupled with another, more personal and dynamic motivator (see above), such as wanting to solve a mystery or wanting to save a loved one or wanting to live long enough to enter a pie-eating contest.

Motivation Should be Present on Every Page

There should not be a page in your novel where your character has no motivation. From page 1 to page 300, something should always be driving their behavior.

A page without motivation is dull, and a scene without motivation is meandering. If you’ve ever read a novel that felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, there’s a good chance it was because the characters’ motivations were not clearly identified and articulated.

Motivation is About Goals

Some writers can fall into the trap of giving characters motivations that are not tangible. Something like “wanting to fit in” is a great motivator, but what does that mean for the character? For some people, fitting in might mean making it onto a sports team while for others it would mean finding a long-term partner.

Clearly identify the goal behind your character’s motivations. And by clearly, I mean that there should be no question whatsoever in the reader’s mind as to what the character is trying to achieve.

Introduce New Motivations Before Eliminating Old Ones

Depending on your individual story, your character may have a variety of motivations that change over time. This is perfectly fine, but be sure to introduce new motivations before completely eliminating old ones.

More than a sentence or two in which a character has no motivation will make the reader begin to feel lost and bored. Readers keep reading because they are eager to see if the character achieves their goal. If there is no goal, there is no motivation to keep reading.

Bad Guys are Motivated Too

The antagonist’s motivations are often overlooked. Since they’re not the main character it’s easy to minimize the importance of how they feel. But keep in mind that for many novels, the entire story hinges on the motivation of the antagonist.

Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? Why do they want what they want?

Being evil for evil’s sake rarely works. We’re not writing cartoon villains. They need to want something tangible. They need to have a goal.

For more information, check out my video on How to Write a Great Antagonist.

Homework: Solidifying Character Motivations

This is a big homework assignment so hold onto your big girl/boy panties. For those without an outline to use for assistance, this will take even longer. If you can’t finish this during Novel Boot Camp, don’t fret. Just keep working at it whenever you can.

Look at each scene (not chapter) in your novel and ask yourself the following questions of every significant character in the scene:

  • What motivates this character? If they have no motivation, find a way to add one or eliminate the scene.
  • What is this character’s goal? Has it been clearly identified? Could a reader explain it to you without you first explaining it to them? If not, make the goal clearer.
  • Is this character’s motivation authentic? Does it truly feel like it’s coming from the character or was it dictated by where you wanted the plot to go? If the plot dictates the motivation, listen to your character instead (even if it means losing a really cool scene).

Note that there are times when a character’s motivation is kept secret. So long as this is not your protagonist, secret motivations are fine, but make sure it’s clear that a motivation does exist even if the reader doesn’t know what it is yet.

When to Add Motivation vs. When to Cut a Scene

If you run into scenes without character motivation, you will have to choose whether you want to cut the scene or add in a motivation. This decision should come down to whether or not the scene is advancing the plot. If it is, brainstorm ways to either add a character motivation or find a way to move the necessary information in the scene to a different scene that does have a clear character motivation.

If the scene doesn’t move the plot forward (or if it’s mostly just info dumping), you will need to come up with a way to restructure your story to eliminate the scene.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

7 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #5: Character Motivation

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    I have a question(s). Things happen to my MC in the first couple of chapters that change her life and provide her with goals and motivation (one is meeting a man). I didn’t address what her goals were before these events took place, back when her life was normal, because the novel opens with the catalystic events already in progress. Is this okay? It doesn’t seem pertinent, but my fear is if I don’t show that she had a meaningful life and goals before this, it will seem like she lead an aimless and boring existence until this man came into her life. That’s not necessarily the message I want to put out there.

    • amy says:

      One thing I learned at a conference: don’t be afraid to just STATE your character’s goal at the beginning of each scene. (I mean, the character can actually say it, or think it: “Boy, I’d like to get that cup of coffee”…whatever.) (That’s probably not the most compelling goal, but that’s the idea!)

      Then you can get rid of the words, or even leave them there if they fit and help. Nothing wrong with making the goal super clear (says the agent at the conference, not me!)

      So, for example, in the very beginning, when nothing has happened quite yet to send your character on his/her journey, maybe you can have her think: “My life is meaningless–wish something would happen.” (Okay, that’s cheesy too. I guess I do need coffee.) But even if she THINKS something like this, stuff can still be happening. So maybe you’d have the best of both worlds?

      I don’t know whether you want to go chapters before the inciting incident.

      • Julie Griffith says:

        Thanks for the advice. I do have my character thinking, when she’s lost in the woods late at night, that no one but her cat will even notice she’s missing. Think I know how I’ll handle this now. 🙂

  2. Hannah Murphy says:

    Wow, you know I’m tired when I read “Motivation is About Goats”.

    This was such a good read. I was so scared that my character’s motivation wasn’t believable because it was about right and wrong, but after reading this, I realized something I hadn’t even noticed was going on there. It wasn’t about right and wrong, it was about a personal, internal battle between what she had grown up believing was good and just and what her empire was really capable of, and as a soldier, this is a pretty big deal to her. Can she really serve an empire that is so deceitful and cruel? And all along I was like “Dang it, no way this works!” Who knew?!

  3. gillianstkevern says:

    Challenging homework assignment? Yes, I’m already looking forward to this. I’ve been revising my draft as we have gone along, so rather than try and tackle the entire novel at once (it is the time of the week where I get very busy), I’m going to go back and do this for the three chapters I’ve already done, and then do it for each chapter as I reach it.

    Thanks as always, Ellen!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Ellen. This is a great topic and I’ve given a lot of thought to it. I’m at the start of a new novel and this topic has challenged what I thought the protagonist’s motivation was. Now I realise it wasn’t strong enough and have come up with an alternative, much more personal motivation. I can already see how much stronger the novel will be as a result – and I haven’t even had to redraft. So thank you ever so much.

  5. Eliza says:

    Argh, this is what is blocking the chapter I’m editing. It’s driven by plot rather than character motivation. Time to rethink this entire chapter from the character’s perspective. Thank you.

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