Do you know what motivates your characters, or why you should even care about character motivation?
If behavior is what we do, then motivation is why we do it. Although there are many theories of motivation, I define it as an invisible power source distilled from an individual’s instincts, needs, traits, values, goals, expectations, and regrets.
Like the tangled roots of a tree, our motivations dwell beneath the faces we present to the world, deep enough to elude our own awareness at times. It’s woefully easy to disregard or misunderstand our own motivations and those of other people, even when we think we know them well.
Character motivation is the cornerstone of good character design and development. Relatable motivations make fictional characters seem real. Powerful motivations transform them from static lists of traits into lively agents of change. Misaligned motivations stoke the kind of emotionally charged, high-stakes conflict that pulls audiences through stories.
And in fiction as in psychotherapy, character development can be defined as the uncomfortable process of revising one’s motivations.
The Motivation Map
To devise intriguing character motivations, you must dig beneath your characters’ traits and get inside their minds. My Motivation Map worksheet (.PDF) provides a one-page path to giving your characters enough direction, determination, and depth to make them memorable. All you need are four simple but powerful motives: fantasies, nightmares, gifts, and curses.
From these, you can generate vibrant details—specific memories and idiosyncrasies—that will seep into your characters’ thoughts and actions throughout your narrative. You will thus be well-prepared to show (rather than tell) your audience who your characters are, what they care about, and what they are capable of.
Read on to learn how to make the most of the Motivation Map exercise. If you write speculative fiction, know that the Motivation Map can also function as a world-building exercise. Use a faction in your world—a school of magic, cult, political party, or the like—in place of a single character.
Start by choosing a character. Any major character from your story will do, but it is especially crucial that your protagonist and antagonist have strong motivations.
Next, identify what your character’s primary, big-picture ambition will be in this story. What will she strive to win, protect, solve, prove, rescue, avenge, steal, destroy, or [other action verb of your choosing]? Be as specific as you can.
Now it’s time to determine why your character’s ambition matters to her and how she’ll pursue it. Let’s give your character a fantasy, nightmare, gift, and curse relevant to her ambition.
Our fantasies and nightmares reveal our core values—the ideals we cherish enough to live, die, and perhaps even kill for. Gifts and curses fuel our expectations, which motivate us to respond to adversity in distinctive ways.
What “happily ever after” does your character long for? How does she hope her ambitions will be rewarded, and how might those rewards save or change her life?
Originating from our personal definitions of success and perfection, fantasies motivate us to take risks and face threats in pursuit of pleasure, justice, or hope for a better life.
Let your character dream big when you define her fantasy. It doesn’t have to be practical or socially acceptable! The fantasy can be as creative or destructive as you like.
What disaster would your character do anything to avoid? How does she fear her ambitions might be punished, and how would that punishment ruin or end her life (or the lives of her loved ones)?
Originating from our personal definitions of failure and misery, nightmares motivate us to avoid or mitigate risks and threats so we can prevent pain. Nightmares inspire caution and fear. But fear can lead to desperation, which can motivate us to become risks and threats.
What extraordinary advantage makes your character uniquely qualified to succeed in her mission?
Gifts are the special qualities, strengths, talents, and privileges that make success easier to achieve and maintain. They make opportunities more plentiful and obstacles less daunting, boosting one’s confidence and tenacity. In fiction, gifts also give your characters agency—the resources and attitudes they need to persevere.
What dangerous disadvantage will make it difficult for your character to complete her mission?
Curses are the flaws, insecurities, and burdens that make failure more likely and more difficult to endure. They make opportunities rarer and obstacles more daunting, sowing frustration, anger, or despair. Curses, in other words, are excellent sources of tension and conflict in a story!
Our fantasies, nightmares, gifts, and curses have sources and consequences—or roots and fruit, to continue the tree analogy—that bend our life paths in fascinating directions.
To shape your character’s arc, give her memories that explain her motivations, an identity that reflects her motivations, and a destiny that will test her motivations.
Our past experiences explain our motives.
What events taught your character what to value and expect from life? Dig for evocative memories you can use in a prologue, flashbacks, and dialogue—life-changing events that will make your character feel something whenever she’s reminded of them.
If your character has an irrational fear, for example, create a rational source for her fear. A character who hates dogs should have a memory of a menacing dog. A character who fears abandonment should know what it feels like to be abandoned. Secondhand stories (rumors, family legends, popular media, and the like) can also create influential memories. I had an intense fear of bridges for years because of a news report I misinterpreted when I was little!
Past experiences inform our present attitudes and habits, which reflect our motivations.
What standards and routines are your character used to? How are the lessons of her past reflected in her present thoughts and behaviors? Remember to plant some discomfort in a character’s “comfort” zone—make at least one of her attitudes or habits problematic.
Our identities stem from the quirks, mantras, lifestyles, relationships, pastimes, virtues, vices, and other factors that define us… but may also confine us.
Crises test our motivations by upsetting our expectations, threatening our values, and forcing us to make choices that may reveal our true priorities and seal our fates.
As your character pursues her ambition, provide obstacles that will jeopardize her fantasy, add fuel to her nightmare, challenge her gift, and deepen her curse. Your character’s legacy will be determined by what she learns from her crises—and what she chooses to do as a result.
Character Development = Ambition + Motivation + Transformation
Remember that character development is the uncomfortable process of revising one’s motivations. It’s uncomfortable because most of us don’t change until we must. Most of us are consistent (read: stubborn), as are our values and expectations—until crises put us under pressure. Then we’re still more likely to choose old attitudes and habits over new ones, unless the stakes get high enough and our strategies get weak enough to trigger a reckoning.
Heroic characters usually choose wiser, more constructive motivations, making their success and survival likelier. Tragic heroes and antagonists tend to commit more deeply to selfish, destructive motivations, making failure and death likelier.
What gut-wrenching setbacks, dilemmas, and revelations will bend your character’s arc? What choices will determine her destiny? If you’re not sure how to conclude your character’s arc, try making her fate a reflection of your story’s moral or themes.
Now you have all the ingredients you need to create motivated characters with amazing arcs. Go forth and develop your characters with confidence, keeping the following tips in mind:
- You don’t need to know everything. A little bit of motivation is better than none. Even if you just complete one or two rows of the Motivation Map, you’ll still end up with a motivated character, and your draft will be stronger for it.
- You don’t have to use everything you know (i.e., audiences don’t need to know everything). Don’t force yourself to work all these details into your narrative if it doesn’t feel right. But if it does feel right, try to dole the information out in scenes or flashbacks instead of burying them in long descriptions and summaries.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on character motivation and development in the comments. What motivates your characters? What motivates you to write stories?