Everyone wants to be rich, famous, and well-liked. They’re relatable, but they lack sizzle. What I want to share with you this week is the crucial idea that characters need motivation that matters. Basically, what pushes them through your plot line to the other side of the story? Other columnists have cited basic human needs as powerful motivators, but I disagree with that. As mentioned above, it’s too typical. Your readers will demand much more from you than just the obvious things.
So, what’s it gonna be? Read on for all that and more as we dig into what makes the best characters tick.
Intriguing motivation usually involves multiple other characters.
This is a quick and effective way to add complexity to the storyline without compromising on the dynamic you want to create. Just say your protagonist is slowly falling for their best friend’s brother, and they’re keeping it a secret. What kinds of tension does that bring to their friendship? The presence of known secrets add a lot to a story. Yes, I am fully aware that I’m referencing an old Victoria Justice song, but just go with it – that song is a certified bop.
Different forms of irony also add a lot to motivation.
This is a great way to weave in some crazy plot twists as well (and you can read more about that HERE). But regardless, think about the different kinds of irony, and bring the audience into the action. If the twist in question involves something cheesy but hilarious like the butler being the ex-husbands half-brother twice removed, you can tell the audience ahead of time or not. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something before the characters do, while situational irony keeps everyone surprised. Play around with both forms of these for maximum potential to add depth to your character motivations. Maybe that’s why they baked the dagger right into the soufflé!
Employ the use of cognitive dissonance to complicate things even further.
When your character knows they shouldn’t do something but they do it anyway… that’s a classic form of cognitive dissonance. It creates that squirmy, sick feeling in the pit of their stomach that the reader can feel second-hand. When a character is uncomfortable about something, and guilt is gnawing through their last nerve, that’s a classic motivation to blurt out something wildly inappropriate. Maybe you can use that to spice up a fancy dinner (much to their grandmother’s total embarrassment). Have fun with this, and don’t be afraid to tap into your own experiences with cognitive dissonance. Remember a time when you were a kid and did something stupid that you were ashamed of at the time but laugh at now. That’s a great launching point for a similar character motivation.
Give them a tangible goal that makes sense.
What you don’t want to do, is make your character a bumbling idiot (unless of course, they are one). They have to have a reason for robbing the bank – one that makes sense to the reader. Maybe you don’t tell the reader what the reason is until later when you can really pull on their heartstrings. For example, maybe your protagonist needed the money for his daughter’s emergency surgery. Go into as much or as little detail as you want – just beware that the overall tone will change as you do so. Details are like salt – a little here and there, well-placed with purpose, can season up even the bland stories. But if you overdo it, you’re giving your reader a mouthful of briny notes and an inability to taste (or visualize) anything else.
Remember: characters are just humans on paper.
Make their choices make sense, even if you or your reader won’t likely agree with their ideas. The best motivations are the ones that hide just a speck of villainy in them, that isn’t obvious until the full scope of the plan is later revealed. For more help writing believable villains, read this recent article HERE. Whichever direction you take your characters, just make sure their reactions and ideas mimic the thought processes of real, living people. If you can, interview someone with a relevant background if you yourself don’t relate to the direction the plot is taking. If you can’t imagine it yourself, research is truly your best friend. Ask for all the details and subtleties that you can. Even small linguistic adjustments can make a huge difference in the believability of the overall story.