How I Write Motivated Characters

I have recently been asked by several people how I am able to create characters with such believable motivations and consistent reactions to reach those goals. Since this seems to be a common question I thought I'd attempt to catalog my thought process. As a note, this is just one way of doing things, and there is never a one size fits all answer. That said, I hope that these thoughts are of use to you in developing your own methods for character motivation.  

Motives

What do they want?

I find it easiest to start with the old standby for writing characters: "What does this person want?"  

Main Characters

This answer to this question for your primary characters can be as simple or as complicated as you want to write it, as this is only a starting point, the outwardly presenting aspect of motivation. I have found I generally prefer to make the goals personal if I can, as even a small goal can have large impact on the world, although sometimes the wide brush strokes of large scale dreams still work better for a particular character. To give a few basic examples:
  • To save her country.
  • To amass personal power.
  • To heal her mother.
  • To protect his family.
  • To guide their best friend to redemption.
  • To survive.
 

Supporting Characters

As a note, for supporting characters you can certainly answer the same questions as for main characters, but sometimes you are only starting with a need to fulfill a task in your story rather than a full fledged idea of a character. In these instances you can replace their motivation with your main character's relationship to them or your motivation for adding them to your story, and then build that side character's motivations from there. Many side characters start as thoughts such as:
  • My main character hates him.
  • This character will give my main character the information they need.
  • This person pretends to be an ally but will backstab the main character later.
  The depth to which you develop your side characters depends upon how much depth you need from them to support your story. I do recommend digging into them at least one or two layers deeper than required, as this additional character development allows you to maintain a consistency in their actions while also making them feel more alive to the reader.  
Have more than you show
Speak less than you know.
— Shakespeare, King Lear
 

Why Do They Want It?

Lean Engineering has a basic concept of problem solving, called the "5 Whys" or "7 Whys" depending upon your source material. The theory is that by asking questions you can identify the maximum-impact solution to any problem. (This is also the method used by toddlers everywhere to locate the maximum-frustration point of their parents).   You take what you know about the problem you are solving and ask "Why?" Then take that answer and ask your questions again. Ask enough times and you reach the root of the issue, the item that actually needs to be solved. Asking why brings you to the heart of the matter.   Well written characters have hearts too, and this method can help you unlock the secrets they carry that dictate their choices.  

Main Characters

For main characters the process is once again fairly straightforward. Keep asking why until until you feel you have the answer you needed. Let's take a dive into a small example, and ask why she feels compelled to do what she does:   Motivation: To end the war.
Why?
  1. Because she doesn't want her son to grow up having to worry about endless wars where nobody is right.
  2. Because she has seen first hand the effects of war.
  3. Because she lost her own parents to the war, and her son lost his father.
  Sometimes the motivations can also fork. It is up to you whether you want to explore multiple paths or just stick with the one that feels the strongest. Following multiple paths leads to more complex characters which may or may not be desired.   For an example, let's say that same character also answered this way:   Motivation: To end the war.
Why?
  1. Because she doesn't want her son to grow up having to worry about endless wars where nobody is right.
  2. Because she feels responsible for the death of her son's father.
  3. Because she was responsible.
  4. Because she led the attack that killed him.
  5. Because she was so consumed by thoughts of revenge for the death of her own parents that she didn't think about who else she might hurt.
  Keeping both paths leads to a complicated character attempting to balance guilt for her past sins with love for her son. This complexity may not be desired for a side character but may work well for a compelling main character.  

Side Characters

Side characters don't always begin with a motive of their own, but rather our own motives for why we are including them. These motives can also be broken down into useful character motivations by asking why.   For example, taking one of the side character examples from above...   Motive for Adding Them: My main character hates them.
Why?
  1. Because MC is angry at this side character for encouraging his worst inclinations.
  2. Because encouraging MC's destructive tendencies was beneficial to the side character.
  3. Because MC's violent actions reflected favorably upon the side character, earning them even more power.
  4. Because the MC was their apprentice or underling.
  5. Because the side character had something useful to offer MC in return for his subservience.
  And so here we have learned something about our side character - his goal is to amass power, of which he already has some but our MC could provide him with more. Depending upon how deep you want to develop your side characters you can take this motivation through the "Whys" to dig into why he wants it, or even try another set of answers to the question as written here if you wish to develop a more tangled relationship with the MC.   When focusing on the reasons behind a relationship between two or many characters the information you learn can be applied to all characters involved in the relationship.   The more complexity you want, the more questions you can ask! Just keep in mind, some characters don't need deep development and will come to life sufficiently with very little effort. As another example...   Motive for Adding Them: This character will give my main character the information they need.
Why?
  1. Because she wants them to succeed in defeating the evil wizard.
  2. Because the evil wizard killed her cousin.
  Just remember, even with smaller characters it is still worthwhile to ask some questions. For example our helpful person above, while still helpful, would behave somewhat differently if her motives were instead:   Motive for Adding Them: This character will give my main character the information they need.
Why?
  1. Because she wants them to succeed in defeating the evil wizard.
  2. Because she wants her cousin to take the evil wizard's place.
  Characters are what you make of them! Knowing the roots of their motivation goes a long way towards giving them their own voice and personality.  

What Won't They Do? Why?

Often times we think about just how far a character will go to reach their goals, but I've discovered I learn more when asking about their limits:
  • What lines won't they cross, under any circumstances? Why not?
  • Which limits are flexible under specific circumstances? Why?
  • Where did these limits come from?
  A character could have a single limitation, or no limitations, or multiples - all depending upon your preferences and thoughts for how the character works. If any of these limitations feel particularly compelling the Whys can also be used to dig deeper.   Some examples of limitations, the character will not...
  • Kill.
  • Hurt their loved ones.
  • Act dishonorably.
  • Apologize.
  • Eat green eggs and ham.
  These limitations can also provide for compelling story conflict, either from their rigidity (because the character will never break them) or their flexibility (because the character has complex rules about when their limitations are and are not followed). For example, a character who refuses to act dishonorably could be forced into a situation where they can keep a secret but appear dishonorable, or break their morals for the sake of their image. The resultant fallout from this choice will then color their interactions with the world. These sorts of conflicts can also lead to big payouts later if the reader is not yet aware of the specifics, as knowing their motivations, the facts that led to the choice, and the character's methods of handling the aftermath also allows for some fun foreshadowing in preparation for the big reveal.  

Core Motivators

Several years ago I took an Engineering Management class which really dug into the concepts of motivation and teamwork. One of the theories discussed in the class stated that people's core motivations can be broken down into three categories:
  • Power
  • Prestige
  • Approval
  A person doesn't have to have just one, they can be motivated by all three, but one will always be preferred and achieving it, or working to achieve it, will always provide more mileage and motivation than the others. I have found these to be a useful tool in character development as well.   Power can be any kind of power. A promotion. More money. Power over a group or a single person or everyone.   Prestige is the recognition of skills and abilities. Could be general ("They have their act together") or specific ("I have never seen a more talented artist").   Approval can again be a desire for approval from everyone, or approval from a specific group or individual.   Of the three, Power and Prestige tend to fare better when in a leadership role. Those who prefer Approval tend to have a more difficult time making needed but unpopular decisions, as these decisions can go against their own core motivator.   I am a PRESTIGE person. I need all three - I hate feeling out of control (so need to feel some level of power over my immediate situation), and I hate when I feel like someone disapproves of me (and have to remind myself that not everyone will accept me as I am and that's okay)... But "Angela is really good at that" gets me further than the other two. As you can see here! I am very motivated to share my thoughts on this subject because TWO WHOLE PEOPLE told me the same day that I was good at it and now I need more to agree with that. Haha!  

Examples

Now that I've detailed the basic processes on how to dig into a character to see who they are and what makes them operate, it's time to take a look at a few examples to see all the pieces together. I've provided a set of three below, one each for the different core motivators, so you can see the effect this has on the characters themselves.   Please note that some answers are more detailed than others. You don't need to ask all the questions for every character, only to consider what feels most useful to you for that specific character until you feel they have the level of depth required for their current role. (I recommend one or two levels deeper than the level you intend to show your reader). If that role expands later you can always ask them more questions.  

Shane Lawrence

Loving father and power-seeking bastard
What does he want: Shane wants to build a better life for Jake.
Why? Results: He doesn't want anyone to have a childhood like his, losing their parents to the wars and growing up in the orphanage. He feels responsible for Jake because of the repercussions of his own past choices and their negative impact on Jake. He recognizes his flaws and is trying to be better but has trouble overcoming his past habits.
What won't he do? Why? Very little, but...
  1. He won't hurt kids (because each time he sees kids hurt by the war he sees himself, and due to his past choices he sees himself as a part of that war no matter what changes he makes now)
  2. He won't lie (because he has been manipulated and lied to much of his life, plus he has realized the truth is more powerful anyway) but this doesn't mean he always tells the whole truth
  3. As awful as he can be sometimes he will not leave people broken if he feels responsible for their well being (because he recognizes his flaws, knows he is part of the problem, and is trying to do and be better).
He Needs: POWER. He is very careful about his image to cultivate his prestige but it is a tool for gaining power. He does not care if people like him as long as his people are devoted to the Mordena, which often hinges on devotion to him first but again, it's a tool to collect the power he feels he needs to achieve his goal.  

Jake Cartwright Lawrence

Motivated visionary and prestige seeker
Motivation: He is absolutely behind the mission of the Mordena, but his interpretation is different than his father's: protect the weak from the strong who would try to take advantage of them. This manifests as protecting the Freehold planets from being conquered by the other factions.
Why? Results: This is something he's always done with his father. It's very much a family activity at this point. He saw all the things his father is capable of doing, and witnessed the way his father completely changed when faced with the choice to protect Jake or to stay on his old path. His father protected him and made sure nobody ever hurt him and he wants to be strong like his father and protect people like he was protected.
What won't he do? Why? Jake has a much firmer moral core than his father, courtesy of his mother's influence and his father's openness about his own struggles. Jake won't hurt people unless they are trying to hurt those he cares about. He won't betray anyone who has placed their trust in him. He won't tolerate betrayal of the cause from anyone. These are all things he learned from his father and he's taken them to heart.
He Needs: PRESTIGE. He wants to be recognized as a protector, as just as good as his father. He has always had power at his fingertips, from his father and the Mordena, and so doesn't feel the need to seek it. He wants acceptance from his people but recognizes he will need to make decisions people won't agree with and that doesn't bother him; he learned early on to stand up to his father and their disagreements always worked themselves out. Likewise he's never needed to seek approval, his father always made sure he knew exactly where he stood and so while he wants to be recognized as following in his father's footsteps he does not need his father's approval, he's always had it.  

Daoff Asul

Dedicated father, in need of acceptance
Motivation: To keep his family safe.
Why? Results: Family is the core of who Daoff is. His parents encouraged him to do great things, but the core of everything they did was not on the things but the love and time spent with family. They were highly successful in the Legion and yet always made time for him and his needs. He wants to carry this forward.
What won't he do? Why? Daoff will not jeopardize anyone else's family because family is everything, even when it's not his own.
He Needs: APPROVAL. He enjoys the prestige of being good at what he does mechanically but he is drawn more to the people he is working with and doesn't care who takes the official credit for the work in the end as long as his contributions are appreciated by the team. He doesn't want power, but will seek it out if he feels his family needs it. He loves children because they mean family, and their innocent adoration motivates him to help them achieve their needs and desires for fun by sharing his own childhood experiences with them.  

Concluding Summary

I hope these thoughts help you when writing your own characters! As a summary, the basic tools I use when developing characters:  
  1. Motivation - What does this character want? OR How does this character interact with my main characters? / Why do I want them in my story?
  2. Why? - Keep asking your answers why until you feel you have built enough depth.
  3. What won't they do? - What limitations have they chosen to place on themselves, and why?
  4. Core Motivators - Which do they desire the most: Power, Prestige, or Acceptance?
  As with all tools, you will not need to ask all questions in all cases, and you may find your own variations that work better for your use cases. These thoughts are not meant to dictate your process, but to help you develop your own.   Happy writing!


Cover image: by A. Biscup (SolarCat02)

Comments

Please Login in order to comment!
9 May, 2021 15:52

The method of digging deeper via why is so simple, and I knew it, but sometimes its hard to remind yourself how to do it right. I'd never seen it explained so succinctly to me. So, thank you! :)

9 May, 2021 16:28

You're welcome! I do hope it helps!

Author of Fillimet, bright fantasy land of possibilities, and Vazdimet, its darker spacefaring future.
Powered by World Anvil