Character motivations: 7 tips for writing better portraits

Character motivations - how to write about characters' drives better

Since our ‘140 characters’ writing contest is open for entry still (entries close May 2nd, 2016, at midnight), today’s post focuses on writing believable characters. Believable character motivations are at the heart of many great works of fiction. Whether the protagonist is spiraling into a life of addiction or embarking on a noble quest, past experiences and current pressures lie at the root of people’s actions. Here are 10 tips for writing characters whose story arcs make sense:

1: Give each character their own contrasting motivation

2: Use character motivations founded on rational and irrational beliefs

3: Decide how aware your characters will be of their own motivations

4: Let characters’ drives develop as new plot events occur

5: Don’t give characters what they want too easily

6: Try to be subtle in revealing what drives your characters

7. Make motivations complex to increase readers’ interest

More on these 7 suggestions:

1: Give each character their own contrasting motivation

Most writers do this instinctively. If more than one character goes on a quest, for example, one might be a money-hungry assassin who is in it for the pay, while another tags along for the adventure. It helps to build these contrasting motivations into your story from early on because it will help you make your characters’ words and actions align with their essential wants and desires.

Think how common motivations can interact and intersect:

  • A character motivated by the desire for love enters a relationship with a character whose primary motivations are wealth and status. A love-seeking character might take issue with the degree to which their significant other prioritizes their career over the relationship
  • A character desires stability and peace because they come from a turbulent background. They are forced to interact with a volatile, demanding or aggressive person. Will they find their way to a middle ground?
  • Think of other motivations (such as greed, vengeance, jealousy, compassion, ambition, etc.). How could these combine and create dramatic, intriguing contrasts?

Establishing what drives your characters helps readers to understand why your story pans out the way it does. It lends cohesion – the story just makes inherent sense. Besides motivations making sense, they should be interesting. One way to keep motivations interesting is to vary them, basing some on rational responses and others on irrational ones:

2: Use character motivations founded on rational and irrational beliefs

Max Weber on irrational and rational character motivationsThe sociologist Max Weber gives this definition of the difference between rational and irrational motivation:

‘[I]f we know that someone is cutting wood for a living or to provide for his own needs or as a form of recreation, these would be examples of rational motivation; on the other hand, if he is simply working off a state of emotional agitation, then this would be an example of irrational motivation.’

The truth is that most people follow a mix of rational and irrational motivations. Sometimes you might chop wood because you want to light a fire or have a barbecue. Sometimes you might chop wood ‘just because’. The underlying cause might not match the action taken quite so clearly.

For true variety in your cast of characters, individuals’ motivations should lie on a scale of rationality/irrationality. Some characters might be primarily irrational in why they do things. They might be all impulsive, unconscious drives, while others can be hyper-rational, never taking any action unless the immediate, practical benefits are clear to them.

3: Decide how aware your characters will be of their own motivations

Generally speaking, irrational motivations are drives your characters are unaware of, while rational motivations are based on logical, conscious thought processes.

Janice Hardy’s Fiction University gives some useful insights on conscious and unconscious character motivations. Says Hardy, of conscious motivations:

You know what your character wants and why they want it. They’ll probably even state outright why they’re acting as they are. Someone trapped in a burning building is going to look for a way out to save their life.

Unconscious motivations are trickier because they aren’t necessarily as straightforward to make sense of, but this in itself can create mystery and interest. Hardy suggests that when you write about a character who is not fully aware of their own motivations, you ask questions such as:

  • Can you show their motivation by what they don’t do or say?
  • Can they act in a way that alludes to the unconscious motivation?

Ask yourself why a character’s motivation should be unconscious rather than conscious (and vice versa). For example, it would make sense for a motivation to be unconscious if the underlying cause is traumatic in nature, since it is common for people to block out memories of traumatic experiences.

To decide whether a character’s motivation will be conscious or unconscious, ask: ‘How introspective/self-analysing is my character? Is she very aware of herself and her feelings and the reasons for her actions or does she act on her gut and think later?’

4: Let characters’ drives develop as new plot events occur

Character development is crucial in a character driven novel (such as a coming-of-age story or family drama). To keep your characters interesting, let their motivations develop as your story unfolds. The greedy character who obsessively hoards wealth might have a harrowing experience that teaches him compassion and might become more charitable as a result. When major plot events occur, think about how they might change your character and how a particular change will influence subsequent events and your story’s outcome.

Major developments that can spark new motivations include:

  • New relationships with other characters who contribute different perspectives
  • A sudden loss or gain
  • A change in career path
  • Mysterious discoveries

The point of this is that your characters should not be totally impervious to significant events in their lives. Changing the nature of characters’ drives and desires over time creates a sense of development that makes characters feel real and engaged with their world and their circumstances.

5: Don’t give characters what they want too easily

Character motivations should be like winding roadsThe basic wants and backstories that drive your characters propel them to take action. Make sure that your characters’ actions don’t lead in a straight line to getting what they want because this can feel very predictable. Obstacles and complications intrigue us because we become invested in knowing the answer to a burning question (for example, ‘Will the protagonist and her love interest be able to negotiate and accept their differences?’)

When everything moves smoothly for characters, readers are seldom impressed because most of us know that victories and achievements are often hard-won. Making the paths to your characters’ motivations ends wind more creates dramatic interest as well as a heightened sense of realism.

6: Try to be subtle in revealing what drives your characters

It feels stagy when characters announce their motivations explicitly. It’s similar to the soliloquy, the stage device in Shakespearean plays whereby a character addresses the audience, ‘thinking out loud’, explaining their thoughts and plans. Instead, show the origins of your characters’ desires and behaviours through scenes.

For example: If a character is needy with a romantic partner, you could have an explanatory flashback scene at some pivotal point in the story showing a moment of abandonment either by a prior significant other or the death or sudden departure of a parental figure.

Sometimes you may need to have your character state motivations out loud, but showing what drives them as a building arrangement of memories, fears, beliefs and ongoing experiences will make it easier for readers to draw their own conclusions about characters’ behaviour and what it means.

7. Make motivations complex to increase readers’ interest

A simple, single motivation opens up the potential for many interesting scenes and plot developments. Yet a more complex motivation can create heightened tension and uncertainty.

A military advisor to the king who simply has the interests of the kingdom at heart might be motivated by feelings of loyalty, but if the advisor has additional motivations this can create dilemmas and questions. For example, the advisor could have a family living in a rival kingdom whose safety they want to guard. An outbreak of war between the two kingdoms could create a conflict of interests where there is tension between two simultaneous held wants and desires.

Give characters multiple motivations as you plan your plot, since people tend to juggle multiple desires that push and pull them along different courses of action. Characters, like ourselves, sometimes have to make tough decisions that take the story in a new direction.

Write helpful character profiles now using the Now Novel process.

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  • Evelynn Grace

    Great post! I’m especially fond of the part about irrational motivations; I’m a marketing student as well as a writer and I’ve noticed the shift in perspective toward viewing consumers as irrational, something writers have understood for a long time. Thank you for laying it out the way that you did!

    • Hi Evelynn, thanks for the kind feedback! Interesting that idea of using psychological insights from marketing in how you create characters. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • ohita afeisume

    Thanks for this post. indeed, humans are complex creatures. Hardly do we all have only rational motivations without one or two irrational ones in the mix. How true that Literature is life itself.

    • Thanks for dropping in, Ohita. Very true. I think we like to think we’re more rational than we are, maybe. The best literature does often capture and reveal something true about life.

  • Glenys Buselli

    Very helpful as I am at the stage where I need to develop characters to really put body into my stories. No doubt about human complexity. Feels as if we need to be aware of the psychology of each character we create.

    • Hi Glenys, glad to hear this helped! It’s true that it really does help to know who your characters are inside out. It makes it easier to imagine how they’d react in a given situation. Have you tried the ‘character interview’ approach, asking questions of your characters as though they were living people and writing down how you imagine they’d respond? Thanks for reading and commenting!

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