“What’s my motivation?!”
This used to be the go-to line for portraying stereotypical actors. At least when I was growing up in the 90s. Check out this old Sprite commercial if you don’t know what I’m talking about-
But, it turns out, this is a real thing that actors need to know to portray a character. If you’re a writer, your character’s actions, decisions, and dialogue need motivation. In fact, everything your character does must have a driving force. This is what makes characters feel like authentic, real people.
Everything a person does is for a reason. We overreact to get attention, we stay late at work to make more money, or find purpose, or avoid family. We eat because we’re hungry, or sad, or anxious. We drink because we’re thirsty. You get it.
To create a believable character you have to give them a clear motivation for all the things they do. So, let’s talk about character motivation. Let’s break it down into its component parts, and put it back together to see how it works!
Character Motivation Defined & Explained
Character motivation is the reason behind all the things your character does. Motivation tells you, the writer, how that character should respond to a stimulus. A stimulus is an external event happening in the character’s environment.
Motivations are best created by writing out your character’s backstory. Let’s look at an example. We’ll create a character, write a short backstory that explains her motivation. Then we’ll write a stimulus. Her motivation will dictate how she responds to that stimulus.
How Character Motivation Drives Action
Character’s Backstory: Jane recently finished graduate school. She has a master’s degree in Museum Studies. Her dream is to become a curator at a modern art museum. However, Jane has found that demand for museum curators is low even in the best economic times. After months of searching with no luck, she’s applied to a small art gallery. This job would be the perfect entry to her career. She hasn’t heard back in weeks, though, and she’s feeling anxious. With money running out, Jane’s worried she may have to give up on her dream. That means taking a standard office job to make ends meet.
Character Motivation: Jane wants/ needs a job at a local art gallery.
Stimulus: Jane is in the shower when she hears her phone ringing in the other room. Knowing Jane’s backstory and motivation, how should she react to this stimulus?
Action: Jane leaps out of the shower almost tripping over the toilet bowl on her way out. She grabs a towel off the rack as she runs to her bedroom not bothering to turn off the water. She sprints into the room, her wet feet sliding on the hardwood floor. She falls to the ground, reaching for her phone off the nightstand as she goes down. Jane answers just before the voicemail picks up and manages a pained, “Hello?”
That’s a simple example of character motivation, and how it drives actions in a story. This stimulus-response pattern can make up entire scenes. A character’s motivation, or what they want, will dictate how they react to a stimulus within a scene. To learn more about this scene design pattern pick up a copy of Scene & Structure. This is great book that provides clear and effective techniques for scene design.
How to Create Character Motivations
Writing a Character Backstory
The backstory is the first step in determining your character’s motivation. And, it can be easy to create a motivation using backstory. Be careful not to create a backstory that is *too easy, cliched, or overused.
An example: A lot of great stories have revenge-driven plots. The protagonist is wronged and looking for justice. But, how many times have you read about a male protagonist avenging a murdered wife? Too many. Unless you have a fresh take or a clever way to subvert this trope, your story will not impress many editors.
To avoid cliched writing, create motivations that are unique and realistic. Not everyone needs a murdered family member in their past to take action in their present.
Think about the things that people want and need in real life to develop motivations.
So, let’s talk about where real-world motivations come from. To do that we can look to the field of sociology to get a handle on the realistic needs of people.
Using the Nine Universal Needs
Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, developed nine universal human needs. He argued three things-
- Human development is about people and not about things.
- Human needs are limited and classifiable.
- Human needs are the same in all cultures and across all historical periods.
These needs aren’t designed for story-telling, but they can be useful. Let’s break down Max-Neef’s universal needs.
The nine universal needs are:
To Relax (Idleness)
Characters motivated by Idleness
Personality: curious, funny, reckless, and imaginative
Desires: fun, parties, games, peace of mind
Actions: daydream, give way to fantasies, brood, play, relax
Interactions with Society: seek privacy, intimacy, closeness, free time
To Survive (Subsistence)
Characters motivated by Subsistence
Personality: concerned about physical and mental health, adaptable, funny
Desires: food, shelter, resources, work
Actions: feed, rest, procreate, work
Interactions with Society: creating living environments, and stable social settings
Characters motivated by Freedom
Personality: determined, passionate, assertive, bold, open-minded, tolerant, rebellious
Desires: equal rights
Actions: dissension, choice, disobedience, awareness, commitment to one’s self
Interactions with Society: control over their own time and space
A character motivated by Affection
Personality: passionate, determined, sensual, respectful, tolerant, receptive
Desires: friendship, family, partners, nature
Actions: making love, expressing emotions, sharing, caring for others, cultivating
Interactions with Society: privacy, intimacy, a space for togetherness
Characters motivated by Identity
Personality: consistent, assertive, self-assured
Desires: habits, customs, religion, historical memory, values, norms
Actions: commitment, integrations, confrontations, getting to know one’s self, self-actualization
Interactions with Society: social rhythms, a setting which they belong to
Characters motivated by Protection
Personality: caring, adaptable, autonomous
Desires: insurance, savings, healthcare, rights, family
Actions: cooperation, prevention, planning, helping
Interactions with Society: creating social environments and living spaces
Characters motivated by Understanding
Personality: receptive, curious, disciplined, intuitive
Desires: literature, teachers, methodology, communication
Actions: investigation, meditations, study, experimentation
Interactions with Society: supports schools, universities, and academies
Characters motivated by Creation
Personality: rational, bold, autonomous, curious, imaginative
Desires: skill, work, ability
Actions: invention, design, composition, interpretation
Interactions with Society: productive feedback, workshops, cultural groups, spaces for expression, audiences
Characters motivated by Participation
Personality: receptive, dedicated, respectful, adaptable
Desires: rights, responsibilities, privileges, duties
Actions: cooperations, agreement, expression of opinions, obeying
Interactions with Society: associations with churches, communities, neighborhood, family
Consider these nine universal needs when you are creating your character’s motivation. And, you don’t need to limit yourself to a single need for one character. Our character example, Jane, could fit into several of these ‘need’ categories.
The Difference Between Character Needs, Character Motivations & Character Goals
Character needs are broad and not specific. Examples of character needs are the universal needs listed above. Characters may, broadly, have a need to survive, to understand, or to create. As a writer, you’ll need to transform universal needs into specific motivations. This is done through backstory and characterization.
Character motivations are more specific than character needs. Say you have a character motivated by an understanding need. This could translate into a detective hunting down a jewel thief. Or, you could write about a teacher trying to inspire underprivileged students. Motivations are specific, will rely on the story you want to tell, and your character’s backstory.
Character goals are measurable outcomes. They are the outcomes the will satisfy your character’s motivation. The tangible thing your character wants to achieve.
The detective is motivated to find the jewel thief. The ultimate goal is to put the thief behind bars, though. The teacher’s goal might be to help his students pass some standardized test, or win a competition. The goal is an outcome that proves to readers the character was successful or failed, in their quest.
Now, let’s look at how character needs, motivations, and goals all play out in a single plot. Let’s use a story with different characters dealing with the same conflict. But, each character has different needs, motivations, and goals.
Let’s talk about the 1993 film, Jurassic Park. Is this because I want to use a dinosaur as this post’s featured image? Yes. Yes, it is.
Examples of Character Needs, Motivations, & Goals
We’ll look at the four main characters in the film. They are Dr. Alan Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, Dr. Ian Malcolm, and park owner John Hammond.
Dr. Alan Grant
Character Need: Protection, he plans, helps, takes care of others, and cooperates.
Character Motivation: During the movie, Grant becomes stranded in the park with a pair of helpless children. His motivation, in the film, is to get himself and the two children to the park’s visitor center safely.
Character Goal: Grant’s goal is to escape the island, with his new surrogate family, without being killed or eaten.
Scene Example: During a tour of the park’s main attractions, the tour groups’ vehicles stall. While stalled, the T-Rex escapes from her paddock a attacks the tour group. Alan risks his life to rescue the children from their car and guide them to safety.
Stimulus– The escaped T-Rex attacks the children’s’ car.
Action– Alan runs to their rescue, putting his own life on the line.
Dr. Ellie Sattler
Character Need: Understanding, she investigates, studies, experiments, and educates.
Character Motivation: Sattler is motivated to understand the park, and it’s wildlife. She uses that knowledge to solve the problems she confronts. She is interested in what plants are causing the animals to fall ill. Later, Sattler learns, through Malcolm, to restart the island’s power. And, finally, she is the character who educates John Hammond. She teaches him to value human life over his creation.
Character Goal: Sattler’s goal is to learn as much as the park as she can. She wants to use her knowledge to help save the lives of the other characters on the island.
Scene Example: Sattler and the other scientists are taking the main tour. They stop when they see a sick Triceratops in a field. Ellie leaves the tour in favor of discovering the reason behind the animal’s illness.
Stimulus– The tour group discovers a sick Triceratops.
Action– Ellie stays behind the group to research what is causing the animal’s illness.
Dr. Ian Malcolm
Character Need: Freedom, he disobeys, dissents, and runs risks.
Character Motivation: Malcolm’s primary motivation in the film is to prove to Hammond that his park is a mistake. He believes, and argues, that the dinosaurs are dangerous. He claims that man cannot control nature.
Character Goal: Malcolm’s goal is to convince Hammond that his creation is dangerous.
Scene Example: Hammond feeds everyone a lunch as he regales the group with his grand plans for the park. Malcolm accuses Hammond and his researchers of being intellectually bankrupt. They’ve built on the work of other scientists. They take no responsibility for their deeds and don’t respect the creatures they’ve bred.
Stimulus– Hammond brags about grand nature of his park.
Action– Malcolm confronts Hammond on the park owner’s moral shortcomings.
Character Need: Creation, Hammond invents, builds, and designs.
Character Motivation: Hammond wants to create a theme park that is unlike any other. He wants to provide people with a magical experience that is real and they can touch.
Character Goal: He wants to convince the scientific experts that his creation is real. He wants to give them a wondrous experience.
Scene Example: When the characters first arrive at the park. they take a tour of the island in Jeeps. While driving Hammond stops the caravan. He proudly presents his Brachiosaurus herd, alive and grazing for the first time in 60 million years.
Stimulus– Hammond spots the herd of grazing dinosaurs.
Action– Hammond takes the opportunity to amaze his guests.
One important thing to take away from these examples is that this is a single interpretation. Each of these four characters could have other needs and goals that aren’t shared here.
In the final act, they all have the shared goal of escaping the island and resolving the conflict of the plot. But, they each have individual goals that define their characters and give each of them a place in the story.
If each character’s only concern was escaping the park, or proving Hammond wrong, or investigating the behavior of dinosaurs then the story would be boring.
Without different character motivations, you wouldn’t have Grant’s heartwarming story-line. You wouldn’t have the eccentric ramblings of Ian Malcolm. And, you wouldn’t get the great scene of Ellie and Hammond eating ice cream, Ellie teaching Hammond why he must give up on his creation.
So, that’s a pretty intense way to breakdown character motivation. I hope you found it helpful. But, do you think this way of looking at motivation is too much? If so, let me know in the comments. How do you like to develop your character’s motivation? Let me know!
Additional Reading on Character Development & Scene Design:
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickman is a novel you’ll want to pick up to learn the stimulus- action formula for writing scenes. Plus a lot of other actionable writing advice!
Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is another invaluable character writing resource! If you want to write believable characters you need this book!
Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs– resilience.org
Manfred Max-Neef’s Fundamental human needs– Wikipedia.org
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