Characters, Writing

Character Motivation

Hi again, everyone! I’m finally starting to feel human again, so that means we can pick up where we left off with my series of posts on characters. Today, I’ll be talking about how understanding your character’s motivations will help strengthen your plot lines and improve the quality of conflict in your narratives.

In my previous posts about tension and conflict, I discussed ways to add tension through conflict between characters, and I discussed the traditional primary conflict of man versus self. Both of these are easier to understand and create if you know what motivates your characters. By understanding why your character does something, you can better place obstacles in their way.

Characters can be motivated by a lot of things. It’s easiest to separate it into intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations are ones that occur natural and internal to the character. For example, a desire to be a better person or to become happy. Extrinsic motivations are ones that are external to the character, such as a natural disaster, another character, or a reward of some kind. All characters should have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in their lives. It fleshes the character out more realistically, and it also gives you more to work with in terms of keeping your character moving toward a final goal.

Once you are able to clarify what motivates your character, you will want to put things in their path that interfere with those motivations. For example, if your hero is motivated to save his heroine, you want to put things in his way that will stop him from saving the heroine. In Super Mario, Zelda, and a lot of other video games, the main obstacle is enemies and new levels that stop the hero from succeeding. Alternatively, you could make the heroine do something that makes the hero not want to save her any longer. In Galavant, a musical comedy that originally aired on ABC, that happens in the first episode when the titular Galavant goes to save his true love, only to find out that she’s agreed to the wedding to the evil king for the power. It immediately changes Galavant’s motivation, and it sends the series off in a new and truly entertaining direction.

Intrinsic motivations are harder to mess with than external ones, in the sense that changing the motivations that are core to a character can be more difficult than changing ones external to him or her. If your character believes that they’re a good person and they’re motivated by that goodness, turning them evil or bitter takes a lot more work to be convincing with it. However, as I tend to prefer stories that are character driven, I think these kind of changes in a character are more interesting. You’ll need to be careful to make the change natural and understandable, but I think it’s well worth it when you’re finished with the story.

We’ll pick up again on Monday with another post. Not sure what the topic will be yet, but I’ll see you guys then.

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