Motivation, in fictional characters and real people, is not a tangible thing. It is present and important, but you cannot point to it. You find it in the space between other, more obvious things. Yet, as a writer, you have to know whether or not your character is driven by a clear, compelling motivation. All writers, audiences, critics and teachers agree: motivation can make or break a story. So, given how hard this thing is to pin down, what can you do?
When something is hard to describe, it can help to approach the problem from another angle – figuring out what it isn’t rather than what it is. Here are some things that are commonly mistaken for motivation.
- Goals – This is by far the easiest mistake to make. A goal might not be the same thing as a motivation, but in well-written characters, it is always the result of one. First a character has some vague, inner longing. Then they are offered a chance at something that feels like a tangible, physical version of their vague longing, and they leap at it. However, badly written characters sometimes have a goal without a motivation: you can recognize these characters by asking, “If they could not achieve their goal, what might be an acceptable substitute?” You can also ask, “what would convince them their goal was misguided?” or “what would they look like if they had no goal, but were satisfied with their life as it was?” or “what situation would make them feel dissatisfied, but also like they had no meaningful goals to chase?” Goals are external and transient. Motivations are internal, and stay with a character throughout their life. The goal is the tangible objective. The motivation is what made that goal feel meaningful to the character.
- Tasks – I got this one from Ted Elliot and Terry Russo, the screenwriters behind Aladdin and The Pirates of the Caribbean. If you understand the difference between goal and motivation, the task is one step further removed: tasks are the things a character has to do in order to achieve their goals. While a goal has to be desirable, based on a person’s motivation, the task can be something completely unpleasant and undesirable. The most interesting stories usually have at least one task that goes completely against how a character would want to behave, under ideal circumstances. These tasks tend to force either character evolution, for better or for worse.
- Emotional Health/Morality/Maturity – “Sociopath” is not a motivation. Neither is “good person” or “immature person.” Depending on who is using these words, they either refer to how well someone lives up to the rules of a given society, or how well they have developed traits like compassion, patience, resilience and perspective. Motivations are fundamentally neutral. There are innumerable ways to pursue them. This applies even to motivations that we see as positive, like connection to other people. The healthy love interest understands that a coerced relationship will ultimately not fulfill their desire for connection. The abusive stalker believes that an authentic emotional connection can be forced. Similarly, the difference between the tyrant and the good ruler is not in their desire for power and status, but their compassion for the people they rule over and their perspective on the long-term consequences of their actions. Recognizing that motivations are neutral will help you write complex villains, flawed heroes and realistic character arcs.
- Resources and Obstacles – This is one of the strangest mistakes, once you notice it, yet people make it all the time. When I worked in public schools, I saw it daily. If a kid got good grades, that meant they were motivated to learn. If a kid rarely went over to talk to peers, that meant they were not interested in making friends. However, as I worked in special education, I got a front row seat to the difference between ability and motivation. I remember a nearly nonverbal kid who skipped a hot chocolate activity because he did not want to miss his speech-and-social-skills activity with me: he was five, and I did not give him any toys, candy or stickers as rewards for his work. I was allowed to, but I never had to. He was that motivated to learn how to socialize. When you are writing characters, think about what advantages they have and which ones they lack. If you don’t know their limitations, and the sacrifices they made to overcome them, you don’t know what truly motivates them.
Once you understand all these things that aren’t motivation, now it’s much easier to understand what motivation is. Motivation is that sense that a life filled with X would be meaningful. From there, you look for things that represent that X, or would draw X into your life. You look at what you have to work with, and figure out how to get X. Sometimes you realize that the thing that you thought would get X was actually taking you farther away from it, especially if you pursued it in an unhealthy, ignorant or emotionally immature way. You might learn that the goals that you think will lead to X are completely beyond your reach, for reasons that you have no control over. You might feel despair at the thought that your misguided efforts might have forever cost you the chance at X.
Thankfully, because motivation is something intangible, it is rarely something that is completely beyond your reach, even in the worst situations. One of my favorite books that I’ve read recently is Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver. (spoilers for the first few pages only) The protagonist, Pepper, attacks a police officer who was pestering his girlfriend, and ends up committed to an inefficient, underfunded and wholly apathetic mental hospital. Pepper is a classic example of a type Eight. He is strongly motivated to be a powerful person who can stand up for himself, and also has a soft spot for underdogs. He wants to believe he can protect anyone, and because of his size and his blue collar background, it is easy for him to rely on the tools of a stereotypical macho guy – blustering and throwing his weight around. In the ward, however, he can simply be sedated, locked up, and abandoned for that behavior.
The beauty of this story is seeing how Pepper redefines his beliefs around who he is and how he can live a life that is meaningful, even in hopeless situations. It is a perfect example of a character who is compelling because of how clearly his core motivation comes through, and how he is shaped by his new limitations. If you look back at other stories that have moved you and stayed with you, you will no doubt see the same pattern. The character has a strong motivation to do something. Their situation messes with their ability to do that thing. To cope, they change something about themselves, but not their motivation. Not really. They simply find a new outlet for it.
The reason why motivation is so important to storytelling has nothing to do with pacing, or delivering a strong elevator pitch. It is because people have motivations. Even people who seem to be doing nothing have some motivation: their problem, if you sit down and talk with them, is unlikely to be that they truly want nothing, but that they are stuck on an unrealistic idea of how to get it, or afraid to honest express what it is. Or maybe they have simply realized that they already have it, and can legitimately rest.