Whether we know it or not, the events and people around us can affect us in ways we don’t even realize, sometimes motivating actions we normally wouldn’t dream of taking.
We act out in anger in the blink of an eye before we even comprehend what made us angry in the first place.
We shut down in shock when we’re subjected to trauma too great for us to handle.
We don’t always choose to act the way we do, but there is always a reason, even if it’s buried deep in our subconscious.
The same is as true for our characters as it is for us, affecting everything in our story from plot to conflict to stakes.
That doesn’t mean everything our characters do and experience should always be a reaction to their surroundings and the people in it.
They’re not puppets on a string simply there to go along for the ride.
They have thoughts, feelings, and goals all their own that drive their choices, even if things don’t always go the way they planned, same as we do.
There are three types of motivation a character might experience:
Almost every action our characters take will be motivated by their goals or obvious reactions to nearby events.
For example: a character slapping her boyfriend after catching him with another girl, or feeling dizzy and backing up after looking over the edge of a cliff because they’re afraid of heights.
The best way to suggest motivation is to use surrounding events and the actions of the characters to show the reader, rather than telling them through dialogue or internalization.
It’s a safe bet if you saw these things happen in real life and could figure out the motivation, then your reader will be able to as well.
Don’t drown your readers in boredom by telling them what’s going on. Show them.
It’s much more realistic to have the character act and react. And much more interesting.
Sometimes a character might not know the reason they act the way they do.
Events from the past that have been buried deep within a person’s subconscious can have heavy consequences on future thoughts and feelings without them even being aware of it.
For example: acting out for attention, lashing out in anger, or feeling depressed when life seems great.
In some cases, the character might be afraid to show their real needs, so they divert attention to other things.
This leaves the character thinking and feeling one way while acting another.
This motivation can sometimes be harder to show than a conscious one.
The character is not choosing their actions, and surrounding events might not always warrant their reaction.
For this, we must rely on a combination of internalization and action to get our point across to our readers and try to show more than we tell.
In the case of this motivation, the character is acting in a specific way to accomplish or gain something through their actions.
For example: feeding false information to capture a spy or flush out a traitor, or a cheating husband lying to his wife about going on a business trip so he can rendezvous with his mistress.
These actions are planned through either dialogue or internalization and are perhaps the easiest for the reader to pick up on as they don’t leave a lot up to interpretation or the imagination.
While showing our characters’ motivations is important, it is not always necessary.
Some actions are so minor it serves no purpose to explain them as doing so will only bog down the story with unnecessary information.
Keeping our focus on actions that affect the plot, are confusing, or brings depth to the characters will keep our writing tight and on point.
Showing character motivations can deepen the effect the internal and external conflicts have on readers.
Use them to draw readers into the story and make them care what happens to the characters next.
How do you use character motivation in your stories?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.