List a handful of your favorite novels and I’ll bet they have one thing in common: an unforgettable main character.
From Captain Ahab to Atticus Finch and from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, such memorable characters seem like long-lost friends.
Inventing characters and infusing them with the internal strength to become heroic is an art you can spend a lifetime trying to master.
Not only must your characters grow throughout a story and evidence a true arc, but they must also feel real and knowable—to make them believable.
How can you breathe such life into your main character?
It’s no secret.
You must build them with realistic, credible motivations.
Do this well, and who knows? You might create your own Dorothy Gale or George Bailey.
What is Character Motivation?
Our main characters have to behave like real people in real situations, not like pawns to make a story work.
Even if your star is a superhero or lives in a land far, far away, give him* needs, wants, and dreams. (*I use male pronouns inclusively to represent both genders.)
Allow him flaws, mistakes, regrets.
These will account for his why—his motivation. In the end, we need characters with character.
What he does with that motivation will make him a hero or a failure—or a villain.
When he finally faces his crucible, where will he find his resolve?
The better you create and render your main character’s motivations, the more believable, memorable, and compelling your story will become.
That’s how we create an emotional connection between your reader and your character.
As I’ve said many times, readers like to be educated and entertained, but they never forget being emotionally moved.
That’s the way to keep them turning those pages until the end.
Types of Character Motivation
The late humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that certain intrinsic needs must be met for anyone to be satisfied and motivated to meet their other needs.
He listed these as universal human needs:
- Physical: food, water, sleep, shelter, and clothing. If one’s energy is devoted entirely to survival, his focus on anything else is diminished.
- Safety: once physical needs are met, security becomes important: personal, financial, emotional, and physical.
- Social: the longing for love and acceptance can be satisfied by family, friends, and intimate relationships.
- Self-esteem: once this need to be valued by those around us—personally or professionally—is fulfilled, the desire to accomplish something greater begins to grow.
- Self-actualization: once our basic needs are met and we are comfortable psychologically, we desire to fulfill the purpose for which we were created.
A complete list of character motivations would result in endless combinations of the above.
As writers, however, we should concern ourselves with two primary types of motivation:
Physical reactions to outside influence or material reward don’t always come naturally, but happen because of an unexpected or undesired outcome.
Trauma could also motivate your character.
- Threat of violence
- Witnessing violence
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Neglect (physical or emotional)
- Accident or illness
- Natural disaster
How to Craft Your Character’s Motives
So, creating your character’s why means more than just choosing from a list of motivations.
Weave character motivation into your story by:
1 — Not neglecting your villain.
One of the most common mistakes I see in novels is a villain who acts nasty, but we never learn why.
Apparently he does bad things because that’s his role—he’s the bad guy.
Give your villain a history that tells your reader how he justifies his own behavior.
Too many fictitious villains seem to simply delight in being bad. In the real world, villains don’t see themselves as villains at all.
They have reasons to believe they’re right.
A realistic antagonist should have enough motivation in his backstory that the reader is almost tempted to sympathize with him.
2 — Using backstory.
Backstory is everything that’s happened prior to Chapter 1.
What shaped your hero/villain into the person he is today?
Things you should know, whether or not you include them:
- When, where, and to whom he was born
- Where he attended school
- Political affiliation
- Spiritual life
- Best friend
- Whether he’s single, dating, or married
- Personality type
- Anger triggers
- Joys, pleasures
- And anything else relevant to your story
3 — Employing plot twists.
Few people change for the better throughout life. They become bitter, angry as reality sets in, and they abandon their dreams.
That’s one of the reasons they escape to fiction, to live vicariously through someone for whom things did turn out better.
Allow your hero to grow and change, giving your reader that escape.
Your character arc must ring true, however, so your reader can’t say, “That would never happen.”
Readers want your story to make sense.
Plant clues that reveal strengths and weaknesses, so a surprising turn will seem inevitable in retrospect, but not predictable.
4 — Complicating things.
Speaking of predictable, don’t limit your character to one motivation.
Mix things up. Combine internal and external motivations.
A hero can struggle with not wanting to repeat the sins of his father (internal fear) while inadvertently repeating those very mistakes.
That’s real life.
And when the conflicts are resolved, the payoff is sweet.
5 — Determining your character’s goals.
But don’t confuse goals with motivation.
Motivation is your character’s why.
Goals give him direction.
Your hero may want to save the world from terrorists (goal), because a loved one was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center (motivation).
So give your hero external goals and the real (internal) reasons to achieve them.
6 — Showing, not telling.
This Cardinal rule of fiction also applies to character motivation.
Trust readers to deduce your character’s why by what they see in your scenes and hear in your dialogue.
If you have to tell about your character in narrative summary, you’ve failed.
The theater of the reader’s mind is more powerfully imaginative than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Triggering it makes reading a joy.
Show who your character is through what he says, his body language, his thoughts, and actions.
Don’t just tell me he’s brave. Show him being brave.
For more on this, see my blog: Showing vs. Telling: What You Need to Know.
Character Motivation Examples
David Morrell says his students who fought in Vietnam inspired him to create the character John Rambo and the 5-movie Rambo franchise.
Rambo, a decorated war hero, returns home deeply disturbed, haunted by war, and suffering from PTSD.
That’s more than enough motivation to cause him to take actions he would otherwise not take to protect the people he loves.
Few stories offer a greater variety of character motivation than Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.
Each character is relatable and endears himself to readers as shenanigans unfold.
- Pooh, the main character, is lovable, quiet, friendly, thoughtful, and wise.
- Christopher Robin, the only human, is one of Pooh’s best friends. He’s compassionate and wise beyond his years.
- Piglet, Pooh’s other best friend, is small, shy, and fearful. But he exhibits great courage when faced with adversity.
- Eeyore is the epitome of gloomy. He’s Pooh’s slow-moving, sarcastic donkey friend who always sees the negative.
- Kanga, the only girl, is the protective mom of Roo, but really mothers the entire bunch. Always kind-hearted, she’s quick to offer gentle advice and feed her friends.
- Roo, Kanga’s son, is a ray of sunshine in the Hundred Acre Wood, ever cheerful and full of energy.
- Tigger epitomizes energy. He’s clumsy and can’t talk well but makes up for that with abundant confidence.
- Rabbit is the smart one (or so he thinks) and is obsessively compulsive, angry, bossy, and impatient, but cares deeply about his friends.
- Owl is the elder and enjoys hearing himself talk. He is wise and kind but often gets irritated when the others tire of his long-windedness.
Maintain Your Character’s Believability
A character doesn’t feel authentic if he’s missing that feeling of true humanity.
He must feel real or readers will lose interest.
They want to see weakness, both internal and external struggles, and how your character overcomes these.
Without a why, true motivation, he won’t likely overcome anything.
So give him a compelling motivation and you could create a story your readers will remember forever.
Character Arc Worksheet
If you’re an Outliner, this tool can help you get to know your hero before you start writing.
If you’re a Pantser (like me), you might rather dive right into the writing.
Still, you may find this helpful to fill in missing pieces as you write.
Do what works best for you and your story.