Character Motivation: A Short Guide for Storytellers
What drives a truly compelling story forward? Someone might start reading a story because what they’ve heard about it sounds interesting, but what is it about the story that is going to keep them reading until the very end? When a filmgoer goes to watch a movie on the big screen, what is it about the film’s story that will keep them sitting there until the credits roll? Before the story is even made available to the public, what is it about the story that will keep the writer producing pages until they reach a satisfying conclusion. Many writers have exciting story ideas that act as a catalyst to get them started writing their story, but too many writers lose steam about halfway through and give up.
Tragically, there are an untold number of unfinished stories out there. What is going to make your story the one that gets finished? Many writers struggle with writer’s block, and if you’re one of them, this course can give you a process for overcoming it.
What is Story?
At its core, a story is the telling of a character’s journey to achieve some kind of goal while battling some type of conflict that threatens to stop him or her from meeting that goal, and all the while, the events along the journey cause the character to undergo a significant internal change from the beginning of the story to the end. A story, whether in a novel, a short story, a film, a play, or a television series, gives us a series of interrelated story events that keep us interested in what the character does and what he has to go through in order to reach his goal. But what really makes a story compelling is not so much about what the character does as it is about why the character does what he does. For more information on storytelling as well as script writing, check out this course on storytelling basics.
An Introduction to Character Motivation
Character motivation is the key element to making a story compelling because people resonate with motivation. Nobody takes an action without something influencing or driving that action. Life is a series of interrelated events, but if you were to watch someone’s real life from the outside, all you would see are the events. Motivation isn’t something you witness. In real life, if someone suddenly kills his wife, people will wonder why he did it. They assume it isn’t random and that there was some underlying motivation that influenced the behavior that resulted in the death of the man’s wife. Motivation is also important because the actions characters take have to make sense in light of the motivation that drives them.
Story events themselves can be interesting, but the motivation behind those story events can change everything and keep an audience guessing throughout the story. Consider the story below.
An Illustration of Character Motivation
A man came home one day to find that the front door of his house had been forced open. Immediately, he began to worry because his wife had been home alone, and he hadn’t been able to reach her by phone on his drive home from work. The man rushed into the house and found the living room furniture toppled over and the fabric of the couches ripped to shreds. He searched frantically throughout the house, fearing the worst, but there was no sign of his wife. He didn’t know why someone would kidnap his wife, but he knew he had to get her back. He thought of the future he’d worked so hard to establish. He couldn’t let someone take that away from him.
He spent the next several days searching for any clues of where she might be. After several weeks, however, he had to face the probability that she was dead. One year later, the man was driving through the city where he worked when he saw a woman that looked exactly like his wife walking into an expensive hotel. He quickly parked his car and followed the woman inside, being careful not to let the woman see him. He followed her to the third floor and watched the woman walk into a room. He knew that the woman was his wife, but he didn’t understand why she was there. The man knocked on the door, and his wife opened the door. Surprised to see him, she clearly didn’t know how to react. A man inside the room asked her who was at the door.
The man soon learned that his wife had left him for the man inside the room. Together, they had made it look as if she had been kidnapped so that he would eventually move on.
That night, the man grabbed the gun with a silencer he had stored in his bedroom closet and drove back into the city. He went back to his wife’s room, and after she let him inside, he shot both her and the man dead. He pulled out his cell phone and made a call, telling the person on the other end that he’d finally kept his end of the deal. His target was dead and he was ready to collect his payment.
The man in this story searches for his wife, and he seems to be genuinely distraught by her disappearance. Notice that this story is more than just about what the man does. Why he does this takes the story to another level. We would naturally think that the man searches for his wife because he loves her and he wants to live out his future with her. Yet we discover a completely different motivation driving his behavior: He was hired long ago to kill her and couldn’t collect his payment until he finished the job.
Developing Character Motivation
If readers and viewers identify with motivation, then developing character motivation in your story should be a vital part of your writing process. The process of developing character motivation involves determining the character’s overarching goal in the story and then finding out why it’s their goal.
Character Goal: What Does Your Character Want?
Any story can be reduced down to the main character’s primary goal. What does the main character want? What are they trying to achieve? Once you know what your character’s goal is, then you can begin imagining all the possible scenarios and the actions the character will have to take in order to reach their goal. This includes the presence of some type of conflict that tries to counteract every action your main character takes throughout the story.
In the 2010 Christopher Nolan film Inception, the main character Dominik Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) has the goal of planting an idea into the subconscious of Robert Fischer to dissolve his father’s company after his father dies. He and his team plan to do this by entering into Fischer’s dreams. The planting of an idea is called inception.
Inception hinges on the goal of succeeding in performing inception on the character of Robert Fischer, and the film unfolds with each story event driving toward the goal. Of course, there are moments of opposition throughout, so the characters must learn how to achieve their goal by overcoming the conflict.
A story without an overarching goal makes all the story events within the story seem random. They’re not going anywhere. They’re like an arrow randomly shot into the air that could land anywhere.
Character Motivation: Why Does Your Character Want It?
The goal of the story is vital to crafting a story that continually moves forward, but that’s only part of it. The next step is to ask the question of why the character wants the particular goal they’re chasing after.
To illustrate, we’ll return to the example of Inception. Performing inception on Robert Fischer is Cobb’s goal. It’s the thing he fights for and the thing that he feels he has to accomplish. Every action he takes is in pursuit of reaching the goal. But why? Cobb doesn’t do this for no reason. He has a strong motivation for why he does what he does, and Christopher Nolan slowly reveals Cobb’s motivation throughout the course of the film. Cobb has two children that he hasn’t seen in a long time because he faces a murder charge in the U.S. If he returns, he’ll be arrested and put on trial for his wife’s murder because his wife committed suicide and left evidence that incriminated Cobb. Saito, who hired him for the Fischer inception job, has the power to make Cobb’s problems go away so he can be with his children, but only if Cobb succeeds. Being with his children again is the driving motivation that influences every action Cobb takes throughout the story. This makes the story more compelling than if it were just about a guy trying to plant an idea into someone’s mind.
As you’re planning your story, think about the overriding motivation for why your character does what he does. Character motivation will influence every action your character takes, so it needs to be something that is believable and truly motivating. As you’re writing each of your scenes, you’ll need to constantly consider what is motivating your character to take a particular action. This will help you to avoid writing scenes that don’t add to the story.
Character Motivation: The Key to Completing a Story
Before you ever worry about whether or not a reader or viewer will finish your story, you have to love the story enough to finish writing it. A compelling character motivation is the key to keep your interest piqued enough to want to finish the journey with your character. If you’re interesting in writing stories in the form of novels, you might want to check out the Novel Writing Workshop. If you’re interested in writing stories in the form of movies, you can find more information in the Screenwriting Workshop.
Last Updated November 2023
A Thriller Plots Production - Thriller, Mystery, Crime, Suspense, Beginner Fiction Writer's and Authors | By Mike DicksonExplore Course
Fiction Writing students also learn
Empower your team. Lead the industry.
Get a subscription to a library of online courses and digital learning tools for your organization with Udemy Business.