Fiction Writers: Know Your Character’s Motivation, Or Else by Kay Keppler
We all have goals, especially on January 1. When the new year rolls around, everybody wants to lose weight, save more money, and go to the gym more often. Eighty percent of all people make those goals every year because we want to be healthier, happier, and more secure.
Why we give up on goals
But then we fail to follow up on those goals, often within a few weeks. Why?
Because deep down, we don’t care enough. Our motivation to get healthier and more financially secure isn’t strong enough.
Maybe we could change our behavioral patterns if our motivations were stronger—say, if we knew that losing 15 pounds would save our lives next month when we had a heart attack. Or saving an extra $25 a month could buy the medicine that would save our child’s life. Motivations like that can help people work harder toward their goals.
Big goals need strong motivations
Your characters are no different. They might have great, life-altering goals, but they need the motivation to achieve them. Without strong motivation, your characters have no reason to pursue their goals when the going gets tough. And if you force them to keep slogging toward that goal when they don’t really care, your readers will see that—and they won’t care either.
Why your characters want what they want—their motivation—is the magic that makes your characters believable and empathetic. It’s why your readers believe in your story and root for your protagonist.
Begin with because
Every motivation begins with because. Your protagonist strives for a goal because—why? That “because” is your character’s motivation. Whatever her goal is, you must make her want it bad and want it now.
No goal is too unbelievable or over the top, as long as you give your character sufficient motivation to strive for it. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara wants to save her home, Tara, after the Civil War. When she stands in the barren field and swears to the sky that she’ll never be hungry again, you know that she’ll do anything to make it so. How badly does ET want to go home? Badly enough that he helps his friends bicycle across the sky.
Goals and motivations provide structure
Give your characters big goals, but your book will have stronger scenes if your characters also have smaller goals, with motivations to match. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s main goal is to get back to Kansas. But she has secondary goals. Before she can go home, she must get to the Emerald City, see the wizard, and retrieve the broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West.
Solving the problem of getting home forces Dorothy to make decisions and take action. And when Dorothy goes to the witch’s castle to retrieve the broom, you believe Dorothy has this much courage because of how badly she wants to go home. Her motivation is clear.
Use these secondary goals—with appropriate motivations—to set up your scenes.
Don’t forget internal motivations
Characters are motivated by external desires—Dorothy and ET want to go home, and Scarlett wants to save her home. But part of their motivations are internal—their emotions, hopes, fears, and expectations.
Dorothy’s internal motivation is to find a place where there’s no trouble. That’s an internal motivation of a teenager—adults know that trouble is part of life. Scarlett wants to preserve her past, the place that nurtured her and the last place she was happy, so she can be happy again.
Your characters should also have internal motivations. Be sure to create internal motivations that match the kind of character you’ve written—and, if possible—reflect your protagonist’s external motivation.
Fighting for goals starts with motivation
The key to hooking readers is to make them want to know more. Give your characters big goals with strong motivations. Your protagonist must achieve her goals or die trying because…why? Answer that question, and you’ll be well on your way to making sure your readers keep turning the pages.
Kay Keppler (www.kaykeppler.com) is an author (Zero Gravity Outcasts, Betting on Hope, Gargoyle: Three Enchanting Romance Novellas) and editor of fiction and nonfiction (Angel’s Kiss, Outsource It!) who lives in northern California. Contact her here or at email@example.com to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.