Character Motivation Matters

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When I was studying for my master’s degree in writing, two of the phrases that came up frequently in workshop were “character-driven” vs. “plot-driven.” These terms to describe novel arcs are frequently used to delineate the difference on what is propelling the action of the novel. But you want to hear my hot take on the whole thing?

All novels are character driven.

Here’s the thing: you could have the most interesting plot in the world. Without the character arc, however, there is no real journey. Your character’s motives are the heart of the story.

Just what is character motivation?

If the character’s goals are the “what” the character is trying to accomplish, their motivation is the “why.” Often, you’ll hear literary professionals mention that you need to be able to break down a novel into a one sentence summary. It may follow a formula like this:

When X (conflict) happens to Y (character), they must confront Z (obstacle) to achieve W (goal).

This is a pretty good one sentence summary. Here’s a more interesting one, though:

When X (conflict) happens to Y (character), they must confront Z (obstacle) to achieve W (goal), or else K (motivation).

The motivation tells us why the character must do what they must do. They factor hugely into the stakes. Without motivation, the character would not otherwise be spurred into action. That said, there are two types of character motivation.

External Character Motivation

External character motivation can be described as anything that is an outside force driving the character’s actions. This can be something such as a physical need (to get out of the cold, for example) or a desire to survive.

External motivations can be large or small and there can be many of them throughout the story or they can be over-arching. They usually involve something concrete that the character will be able to accomplish with their actions such as money, a prize, or an achievement.

When Frodo journeys to Modor to destroy the Ring of Power and save the lives of the free people of Middle Earth, he’s being driven by external motivations in many ways. The situation is outside of his control. His resilience to the ring’s power is a personal characteristic outside of his control. Other people are too susceptible to the ring’s power and therefore, he knows he is the best man for the job.

Internal Character Motivation

Internal motivation is described as interior or emotional forces that drive a character to act. These are often the most compelling reasons for a character’s actions and make the stakes more interesting.

Like the external motivations, they can be large, small, over-arching, or sprinkled throughout.

Remember that example with Frodo? Guess what. It also involves internal motivations. Frodo wants to return to his peaceful life in the Shire. Getting rid of the Ring of Power is the easiest way for that to happen. And he also is extremely honorable and noble, which allows him to act selflessly to try to do his part to protect the people of Middle Earth.

Character Complexity

Character complexity and believability depends on both internal and external motivations. Ever heard a character is flat? Or want to give a character depth? The best way is to give the character depth is to give them good reasons for their actions.

This approach is vital for both protagonists and villains. It also (surprise!) affects your side-kicks and more minor characters. In short, all characters need to have a why for how they behave. Maybe they have a chip on their shoulder. They may need love. Whatever their reasons, motivations will make your characters interesting. Here’s an article on fear as a motivating factor: The Fear Factor – What’s Your Character Afraid Of?

Most importantly, character motivation is a major part of character development. What motivates a character reveals a great deal about who they are. The actions they take based off those motivations can also show the reader the gradual changes occurring in the characters throughout. If you’ve done a good job of mixing internal and external motivations, your readers are much more likely to be hooked–and care more about the journey you’ve created for them.

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

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