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What Did You Do That For?: Why character motivation matters

When writing a novel, we often spend a lot of time thinking about what is going to happen to our characters. Unfortunately, we don’t always spend as much time thinking about how they will respond and why they will respond that way. This is what is known as your character’s motivation, and understanding it—and conveying it to your readers—is a vital part of writing an engaging story.

Your character’s motivation is what gives her a reason to try to solve whatever problem your plot has placed at her feet and determines how she goes about it. Characters with different motivations will react differently to the same problem. How will you know how to have your character respond if you don’t know what is driving her? For example, let’s say that in your novel your character faces a spouse that is losing interest in them. Will they cling tightly to their spouse, desperately trying to reignite the flame? Or will they dump their spouse before they can get dumped? A character motivated by a fear of loneliness may react the first way. A character motivated by a need for control, the second way. Your character’s motivation will be determined by her life experiences, so it is always a good idea to know a lot about your character even if you won’t be sharing that information with your readers.

During the course of your book, your character will most likely have both an inner journey (their growth as a person) and an outer journey (their travels through the obstacles you set in front of them). Your character’s inner motivation will often parallel their outer motivation, and this helps to connect your character to the plot. For example, let’s say you’ve written a crime thriller where a police detective is trying to solve a murder. His outer journey is the murder case and how he goes about solving it. But this same detective is also trying to prove himself to his boss, who has unfairly blamed him for a recent case gone bad. His inner journey may involve finding the courage to stand up to his boss and prove himself as a detective. His motivation in both instances is his desire for a sense of justice. This joint motivation helps communicate the theme of your book to your reader.

So, what happens if you do not successfully communicate your character’s motivation to your readers? For one thing, they can wind up feeling as if your protagonist is not acting realistically, causing them to lose faith in you as a writer. How many times have you read a novel and thought, “C’mon! He’d never do that!”? It can be enough to make you put the book down, and you definitely don’t want to give your readers a reason to put your book down. They can also judge your character unfairly if an action that takes place in a gray zone comes across as black and white. Perhaps your protagonist has an affair, something readers may judge harshly. They might be willing to cut her some slack, however, if they understand that her behavior is motivated by the desire to escape an abusive spouse. Your readers may also fail to connect with a character if they don’t have an understanding of what drives them. As author Orson Scott Card says, “This is one of the reasons people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.” If your readers aren’t able to come to this understanding, your book may feel like just a series of events, rather than a step into someone’s life.

Understanding your character’s motivation—and making sure your readers do, as well—takes some planning and thought, but it is well worth the effort to create a character that your readers will understand, support, and be captivated by. For more information on figuring out what motivates your character, see my previous blog post, How to Pack Your Character’s Emotional Baggage.

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