Some readers say one of the things they love most about books is having the opportunity to become someone else for the duration of the novel or to understand how others think. In order to create characters convincing enough to offer your readers this experience, you need to fully understand the characters’ motivations.
Convincing character motivation is key for other reasons as well. Understanding the motivations of your characters will ensure that the actions that they take make sense. Books with poorly developed character motivation may feel contrived; the characters seem to exist only to serve the plot or act in ways that are not consistent with what the reader understands about them.
If your characters are well-developed with clear motivation, you can also get away with characters that are more flawed or less likeable. Your readers may not want to be best friends with the character, but they may be engaged by her once they understand why she behaves the way she does.
There are several things you need to understand about your characters in order to provide them with convincing motivation.
Backstory is your character’s history. Before the story began, who was your character? What kind of a childhood did your character have? What were your character’s hopes and dreams growing up? What are the most significant events that have happened to your character? Keep in mind these should be both good things and bad things.
Backstory has its uses, but you need to be sparing with it. A story can get all too easily bogged down in backstory, and you can fall into a trap of feeling like you need to or can explain every action of your character due to some event in the character’s past. Your story needs to take place in the present; if you are finding yourself spending too much time on your character’s past, you might need to consider whether you are telling the right story.
An example of a book that uses backstory effectively is Silence of the Lambs. The title refers to a traumatic event in the childhood of FBI Agent Clarice Starling, and it is thematically significant throughout the book without overshadowing its narrative drive. Starling’s childhood trauma of hearing the slaughter of lambs imbued her with a sensitivity to the suffering of others that led her to become an FBI agent. However, while Starling’s past and her psychology figures heavily in the book, the story is very much about what is happening in the present.
What does your character want?
Your character needs to want something more fervently than anything else in the world. What your character wants should be simple without being simple to get. In other words, your character may want true love, to become a billionaire, to rescue her kidnapped sister, to escape from an abusive husband, to survive a sinking ship or any number of other things. Those things should be specific and concrete, but there should be many obstacles between your character and her heart’s desire.
Notice that what your character wants will also be influenced by the genre of the story you are telling. A character in an epic fantasy novel will have a different specific desire than a character in a romance novel or detective fiction.
What does your character fear?
Knowing what your character fears is as important as understanding what she wants. If the two can be in conflict, this is even better. For example, she wants to survive a sinking ship, but she is terrified of water. She wants to fall in love, but emotional vulnerability frightens her. Your character’s wants and fears shouldn’t always be correlated – your story will begin to seem both contrived and predictable if they are – but your character’s fears should certainly act as obstacles to what she wants.
What are your character’s goals?
These are not the same thing as what your character ultimately wants. Your character’s goals are the steps that need to be taken to get what she wants. These goals may change over the course of the novel as different conflicts arise, but they will always be in the service of achieving her ultimate desire.
Getting to know your character
How do you find out what your character’s wants, fears and goals are? There are a number of approaches you can take.
Some writers may find a timeline more user-friendly than a biography. Using a timeline, you can construct a diagram of the major events in a character’s life in much the same way you might diagram the structure of your novel.
Fill out a character sheet. There are plenty of these online such as the one here and another here. You can make your own based on these, or you can fill out one of these. While you shouldn’t get too bogged down in questions that seem entirely irrelevant, you may be surprised to find that questions you might not have considered important lead you to interesting revelations.
If you are struggling with understanding what your character wants and what that motivation is, consider whether there is one dominant emotion that drives your character whether that emotion is fear, anger, and a desire for revenge or something else. Conversely, if you have a character and a plot but you can’t figure out why your character would be motivated to act throughout your plot, consider what strong emotion would drive your character in that direction. Then, think about what might cause that emotion in the first place.
Keep in mind that much of what you learn about your character at this stage is not necessarily information you must share with your reader. Finding out what your character’s favourite childhood game was doesn’t need to make it into the story, but it may help you understand their motivation better in the same way method actors want to know everything about the characters they are playing.
Primary and Secondary Motivations
People are complex, and your characters should be too. Your character may have some secondary motivations along with the driving primary motivation. Your character may be motivated by a combination of internal and external factors, and some of those factors may even conflict with one another. It’s your job as the writer to understand how all of these motivations converge.
Antagonists and Motivation
It can be easy to give the antagonist short shrift when it comes to motivation. “Because he is bad/selfish/cruel” may seem like the easy answer to why the antagonist behaves in a certain way, but your novel will be much more interesting with a complex antagonist. Here are a few of the reasons a character may be a “bad guy”:
Many people do terrible things in the belief they are doing the right thing, and they may be driven by ignorance, prejudice, adherence to a rigid belief system or something else.
Antagonists may have genuinely good reasons for doing the things they do. For example, an antagonist might be trying to save a loved one.
People are very good at justifying their own actions. There is a good chance the antagonist believes that whatever he or she is doing is understandable. Keep in mind that villains are the heroes of their own stories.
Your character may be a psychopath or may be truly evil. However, even a psychopath has motivations. You may wish to read a bit about abnormal psychology if you decide to go in this direction with your antagonist.
A thorough understanding of your characters and their motivations is crucial to writing effective fiction. The motivation of your characters will in many instances drive your plot, and characters who are poorly developed with weak motivations will fail to convince or compel readers.
Backstory and understanding your characters’ wants, fears and goals are also key to pinning down that crucial motivation. With the variety of tools available for understanding who your character was in the past and is today, you can create believable characters with complex motivations that readers understand even if they do not agree with them. Fostering this empathy with all of your characters including your antagonists is one of the more rewarding aspects of writing fiction.