Creative Writing Tip: Motivate Your Characters

We’ve all seen the stereotype of the actor whining at the director, “But what is my motivation?” There is a practical reason to motivate your characters.

When my daughter was nine, she panned a popular summer movie. She didn’t understand why the bad guy of the show kept attacking the hero. “It seems like he only did it because he was bad, but that’s no reason for him to do those things.” Yes, kids can see through the special effects flash and know when a story doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense because the characters didn’t seem to have a reason to be there.

So, you need to motivate your characters to carry out the actions you want in your story. To find your character’s motivation, ask yourself the following:

  • What does the character want? Usually, characters strive for some sort of goal, such as a romantic relationship, financial gain, or to be reunited with family. Sometimes, characters just want their circumstances to stay the same. In any case, the character should want something definite so that the reader can identify it clearly.
  • How desperately does the character want it? Would the character die without it? Would it mean the end of the world? Would it destroy that person’s whole way of life? That person’s values? The more the character cares about achieving his or her desire, the more the reader will care about it as well.
  • What stands in the character’s way? Is someone else in love with the object of the character’s desire? Does the character have some sort of limitation that keeps him or her from reaching the goal, such as a physical impediment or an addiction? The more difficult it is for the character to achieve the goal, the more interested the reader will be in seeing what happens. Readers will also keep reading when the outcome in in doubt.
  • What is the character willing to do to achieve it? Would the character lie? Cheat? Cover up? Or do you have a character who wouldn’t compromise his or her principles, even if it meant defeat or destruction? Here is where the character becomes someone the reader wants to cheer for or boo at.

Make sure that all of your characters have motivations and use those motivations to bring the characters into conflict. The thief wants to get away with the crime, and the detective wants to find him and bring him to justice. The woman wants to go off to college, but her ailing mother wants her to stay and run the family store. Make the motivations strong enough, and you will write an engaging story.

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