Motivation, Goals and Tasks

In a previous post, I wrote about some things that are often confused with motivation. Chief among these are goals (the tangible things that, to the character, represent a fulfillment of the values that motivate them) and tasks (the actions a character must take to reach their goals). Despite being distinct things, these three are intimately connected, and are so important to storytelling that they are worthy of their own post.

Of the three, motivation is the most important. Without motivation, a character feels soulless. They are obvious puppets being manipulated by the author. A story cannot survive for a second with unmotivated characters. It can, however, survive for a little while without clear goals. We often meet our characters at points in their life when they don’t know what to do, until the story presents them with a goal. They also often lack a goal at the end, because they either have achieved or lost the thing they were pursuing. The story does not usually end the moment they win or lose, but lingers for a moment to let us watch the character process it. This answers important questions about whether or not the goal truly reflected their motivation: do they feel the way they expected to feel, or are they surprisingly disappointed by a victory, or find happiness even in defeat? This part may be a full chapter of a book or a few frames of an actor smiling at the camera, but it is important. The character in this scene does not have a goal anymore, but their motivation still exists, or else they would not have any feelings to process.

Your character only has one motivation, but they have many goals. Your character’s motivation can be singular because it is also flexible. It is an abstract concept that can take many forms. Goals, on the other hand, inevitably become plural, because in order to get to goal A you often need to get goal B. If you want to become a doctor, you need to get into medical school. If you want to fall in love, you have to go meet people. If you want to win a dressage championship, you need to have a horse to ride. Obviously, not all goals will be equal. One goal will be the actual endgame, while others will support it. In chess, for example, the endgame is checkmate, when one player’s king is under attack, and there is no way for it to move out of danger. To get to checkmate, you have to put the king in check, meaning the king is in danger of attack, but might have a way to escape. It is also helpful to have more of your pieces still in play than your opponent, and if you have to lose pieces, it is better to lose a pawn than a queen. But any sensible player will sacrifice a queen, if it is the only way to prevent themselves from being checkmated.

In some stories, the rules of the endgame are exactly that clear. In others, the situation can become muddied. For example:

  • The character is not honest with themselves about their endgame. If a character says they want one thing, but consistently self-sabotages, that can work, so long as their self-sabotage reveals a deeper motivation. On Arrested Development, Michael Bluth will sometimes say he wants to be a good guy, do the right thing or be a smart businessman, but he regularly turns his back on those aspirations in order to please his narcissistic family. This works because it is consistent enough to reveal that his true motivation is to feel connected to his family, mainly by making sure that they need him. Occasionally he realizes the trap he has put himself in and tries to leave them, or finally get the better of them, but his longing for their approval always overrides those plans.
  • The characters do not understand each other’s endgame. This can lead up to a betrayal: character A thinks character B is an ally, but actually they are competing for the same thing. It can also happen the other way around. Character A might think everyone is a competitor, without considering that other people might have different priorities.
  • A character does not understand the hierarchy of goals. Ironic defeats often hinge on this. A classic example is the conqueror or dictator bulldozes their way to the top, not caring about the feelings of others. This might get them into power fast, but when it comes to holding onto power, having people who love you and aren’t afraid to tell you the truth is important. Both the film The Death of Stalin and the real life events that inspired it turn on this.*

These all can create characters who feel human and situations that are tense because they are unpredictable. However, when you play with these things, be careful not to lose track of what you’re doing. Know your character’s true goals, the path they would follow if they were sensible, and what blind spots they have. Don’t create blind spots out of thin air when they did not exist before, and don’t have characters overcome those flaws without work. That’s where contrived plot turns come from.

Tasks add another layer of complication. A character’s actions are tied to their motivation, but indirectly. Their motivation might be a peaceful, harmonious world, but they might go to war anyway. Their motivation might be power and social status, but they might need to endure a few years of being humiliated by a terrible boss to climb the ladder. Tasks that clash with core motivation create a good deal of narrative tension.

Tasks are part of why “out of character” is such a complicated concept. You can think of a grid of actions that are consistent, in the long run, with their core motivation. Then there are actions that are consistent in the short term. We are all most comfortable when the short-term and long-term actions are the same thing. This is where the traits that we consider “the real us” exist. However, this is not the only person who we are capable of being. Sometimes, the short term and the long term conflict. If you want to be strong and powerful, for example, it feels comfortable to assert that you are right and everyone should follow what you are say. That is easy when you are right, but what about when you have made an error? Admitting and owning it feels weak in the moment, but builds trust, and that trust will lead to more power in the long run. So, do you go with what feels strong in the short term, but may undermine you in the future? Or the other way around?

What your character chooses to do will depend on their maturity and how you, as a writer, want them to grow. Neither option is really “out of character,” they are just showing new sides of the character. There are only two options that don’t work.

  1. A decision that doesn’t fit the character’s motivation in the long or short term. In contrast to the Arrested Development example, when Rory Gilmore slept with her married ex-boyfriend on Gilmore Girls, it was hard to understand what motivated her. Dean and Rory were never particularly compatible, so it didn’t make sense in the short term. In the long run, she was focused on her career and success at Yale. She was not established as someone who puts relationships before everything: mostly she was someone who put sense before emotions and feelings.** Because this choice didn’t play into her long-term goals, short term goals or underlying motivation, it frustrated many fans, and is often pointed to as the point where the show started going downhill.
  2. Zig-zagging the character’s maturity. If a character is shown to be an immature, short term thinker, and then is abruptly mature and measured, it feels unearned. Similarly, if an immature character gradually makes smarter and healthier decisions, and has a significant breakthrough, then goes back on that growth to their old self, audiences feel cheated. Worst of all is when a character repeatedly withstands the temptation of short term rewards, and then abruptly caves to temptation when the plot demands it.

Of the two, the second is the more forgivable literary crime. People do sometimes work on themselves, then backslide, and there can be some subjectivity in what kind of backsliding is reasonable and what kind of pressures justify what kind of mistakes. In fact, most of the “bad examples” I could think of came from long-running melodramas like Gossip Girl and Supernatural. These shows work because their audience simultaneously wants the highs of a radical, out-of-character moment, and a show that they can return to for years without anything meaningfully changing. The zig-zags give audiences the feeling of a carousel ride: going up and down without having to worry about actually going anywhere.

However, just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean it is a good idea. There are better ways to create long-running drama while staying true to your characters, and even long-running fans of those kinds of shows will often point to the zig-zag moments as the time when they stopped liking a character, or needed to take a break from the show. Most fans agree those shows had only a few initial seasons when they were “good” and then a long run when they were guilty pleasures.

Bottom line, the connection between motivation, goals and tasks is complicated, but understandable. When you can wrap your head around how your character’s goals and tasks tie back to a consistent, intrinsically meaningful motivation, your characters will feel alive and engaging to readers, and so will your story.

*Stalin died from lack of medical treatment after a stroke, because his guards were too afraid of interrupting him to check on him, even when he had been missing for an entire day. Sending competent doctors to gulags for daring to tell him things he didn’t want to hear was also a factor.

**It worked narratively when Rory was distracted by Jess, but in that case it was justified because her chemistry with Jess was so much stronger than her relationship with Dean, and the fact that even then she put off pursuing him for so long underscores that finding love is not a primary goal for her…. yes, I am a bit of a fanboy.

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