Everything we do in life is driven by our motivations.
Some motivations are good, others bad. Still some are complex while others are far from rocket science. Whatever the case, every single action we take is a result of our reasoning. The same should hold true for your characters.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the key to hooking your readers into the story is to create a relatable and engaging narrative.
Readers are naturally drawn to stories that make the characters' experiences feel real. When they can relate, they can connect, and making connections is the most surefire way to get them engaged. In theory, riveting your readers is just that easy.
In real life, well...get your magic wand ready because you're about to work some magic.
Riveting your readers is no simple task, but there are a few things that you can do to put your best foot forward:
- Add instant drama to your story by creating a rockin' MC and a powerful villain.
- Write in Deep POV to get inside the mind of your characters.
- Create formidable character motivations that will engage your readers on a higher level.
Today, we're talking about those character motivations. But what motivations can you use? And just how can you implement them in your work? Don't worry. I've got the answers for you!
So we've already said that character motivations can hook readers into the story, but there is a difference between saying that they do and actually knowing how they do it. Let's break it down and really examine how motivations work to grip the reader:
1) They reveal characterization. There are hundreds of different motivations that you can give your characters, and each of them reveals either who your character is or who they want to become. In doing so, readers get a glimpse of your character's personality, preferences, and desires. Readers get to know who your character is at heart.
2) They distinguish characters. Character motivations help your readers distinguish between the good, bad, and grey characters in your novel. The motivations that drive your character throughout the plot, and especially those that lead up to the story's climax, will reveal if they are ultimately a hero or a villain.
3) They drive action. Motivations drive people to action. The most riveting of motivations are those that encourage your characters to make bold decisions. Whether those decisions are brave or foolish may vary from scene to scene, but the action that results from either helps drive your story forward.
4) They create drama. When two characters' motivations are at odds, your story is in for some serious tension. And nothing is more suspenseful than tension that seems unbreakable. Readers will be chomping at the bit to see what will happen next.
When this tension finally spills over into conflict, your characters' motivations have successfully created some intense drama for your narrative.
5) They spawn character growth. Most novels have character-driven plots, which means that they feature the journey of a dynamic, evolving character. In essence, your character starts out as one person and ends their journey as someone new.
Motivations are what spawn these types of epic character growth. Something troubling or inspiring occurs and your character chooses to take on a journey that will change who they are at heart.
Want to learn more about all of the awesome ways that your characters influence plot?
Go give The Essential Guide to Character Creation a look. It's 78 pages of killer information on crafting spectacularly memorable characters your readers will adore!
So we've established that character motivations provide a lot of value and clarity to your novel. They make for awesome story elements! But that doesn't mean that every character motivation is fair game. I take that back. You are the master creator.
Technically speaking, all character motivations are fair game for you, but that doesn't mean that you should actually use them all.
Perhaps this is just my personal preference, but here are three motivation tropes that I think all writers should absolutely avoid. They've been done over and over again, to the point of exhaustion. It is high time that we writers just let them go.
1) The Ultimate Sacrifice. Obi-Wan. Dumbledore. Syrio Forel. Gandalf. What do all these characters have in common? Spoiler Alert: They are the hero's mentor and they sacrifice themselves.
The mentor's ultimate sacrifice is supposed to be a powerful thing. They have spent the majority of the novel training up our little hero to conquer evil, teaching them all they know. The only thing left for the mentor to do is to sacrifice themselves to the villain.
In doing so, they can protect and motivate the hero. So when the time comes, they accept their death with grace. Shouldn't that mean something?
Unfortunately, such deaths rarely give readers the heart-wrenching feelings that they should. Why? Because this trope is so prevalent that readers were expecting the death in the first place. They steeled themselves up for it from page one, so the sacrifice itself came as no big shock.
Now I know what you're thinking.
"But Kristen, the mentors you listed are all from super-popular books. I love them! Why shouldn't I do my own?"
I hear you, writer. I love these books as well! But that doesn't mean that I want to read the same sacrifice scene in every book I pick up. If you believe that The Ultimate Sacrifice is absolutely integral to your plot, then go for it!
But try not to take the same old approach as every other writer. Do something fresh and exciting with this scene. Give it a twist. Believe me, your readers will thank you for it.
2) World Dominance. Smart villains make for the best villains. Why? Because smart villains are truly terrifying! Their wicked cunning and insane skills make readers legitimately worried that your hero might not succeed.
For this very reason, avoid giving your villain the desire to conquer the entire world. It simple cannot be done. Genghis Khan? Alexander the Great? Charlemagne? None of this extremely powerful men ever conquered all of humanity.
If your villain thinks that world dominance is possible, they are clearly a bit dim, and you don't want a lackluster villain. Leave idiotic antagonists for slapstick comedies and children's television shows, and make your villain terrifyingly intelligent. In doing so, you'll make them memorable.
3) Pure Honor. Don't get this trope confused with just regular ole' honor. What I'm talking about here is the noble character that never doubts themselves or asks questions. They always know exactly what they'll do next.
This type of hero just isn't realistic. They see the world as black and white when, in fact, it is grey. Their pure honor actually encourages them to make foolish decisions. And just like you don't want an idiotic villain, you don't want a unintelligent hero.
Everyone has doubts. Everyone questions their moral code. If your hero is going to be greatly concerned with honor, you need to make sure that they still ask questions. If they know exactly what to do, they aren't going to impress your readers.
And that is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve.
Now that we've got that nasty business out of the way, let's talk about the basics of writing strong character motivations. There are several things your readers need to know about every notable action your character takes.
Here are a few questions for you to answer:
1) What is the motivation? Well, duh, right? Readers must know the motivations behind your POV character's actions if you want to rivet them. Don't leave your readers in the dark; make your character's motivations clear as day.
2) Where did their motivation come from? There are two types of motivations: internal and external.
Internal motivations are forged from within a character. The character chooses to take action because of who they are or what they've done.
On the other hand, when a supporting character's words or actions inspire your character, the motivation is considered external.
Whatever the case, don't make an action come out of the blue. Show readers why your character acted in the way they did by revealing where the motivation came from.
3) What does the motivation say about your character? You've probably heard the phrase, "Actions speak louder than words," and it's true.
In literary terms, character actions speak louder than dialogue and exposition combined. If you are following the old 'show, don't tell' rule, your character's motivations and resulting actions will reveal a lot about their personality, backstory, and goals.
4) How does the motivation and its resulting action affect others? Actions have consequences. Your character's motivations and actions will affect the people around them. It can be a negative or a positive consequence, but it is a consequence in either case.
To make things more complex, a positive consequence can result from a negative motivation and vice-versa. Whatever the intention, show that your character's motivations will affect the supporting cast of your novel in some way to keep things feeling real.
5) What does the supporting cast think of your character's motivations? People love to gossip about not only what others are doing, but why they are doing those things.
Just the same, supporting characters will have something to say about your character's actions and motivations. What does your character think about the supporting characters' opinions? Will their motivations change in the future or will they stay true to their current course?
We've nailed down all of the character motivation basics. Let's journey on to some bonus tips, shall we? Apply the tips below to your own work to spice up your story.
1) Basic motivations are relatable, but not thrilling. Everyone experiences basic motivations. Hunger, curiosity, peer pressure...they are all very real to your reader because they experience them on an almost daily basis. Because of that, these motivations don't always make for the most exciting drama.
Your reader is looking to be thrilled. They want your book to sweep them off their feet and into another life. You can't very well do that if your characters' only motivations are so basic that your reader is left yawning.
Keep your basic motivations to a minimum in your story. Don't get rid of them completely; your readers need to see the humanity in your characters. But consider only using basic motivations when your story seems especially wild or unrealistic.
If some crazy stuff has been going on in your novel, a basic motivation can help bring your story back down to earth.
2) Heroes can have evil motivations while villains can have noble ones. Even your most black and white characters should experience a bit of a grey area at some point in your novel. They don't have to reach Holden-Caulfield-level grey, but a bit of contrary motivation can really spice up your story, making your characters seem truly realistic.
Some of the most horrible men in history still did decent things while earth's most righteous men occasionally made mistakes. That's life. And it should happen in your story, too.
3) Fear motivations are the wild card.Fear can either drive a character to great acts of courage or to new levels of cowardice. Either path is relatable for your readers since they've probably experienced them both at some point.
The important thing to remember is that fear does not necessarily make a character weak. That's a theme that tends to pop up a lot in novels that utilize the Hero's Journey. See for yourself...
"'Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?' 'That is the only time a man can be brave,' his father told him." - George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones"If you fear nothing, then you are not brave. You are merely too foolish to be afraid." - Laurell K. Hamilton, Skin Trade"Without fear there cannot be courage." - Christopher Paolini, Eragon
Fear may make a man brave or it may make him a coward. Whatever the case, it is one of the most realistic motivation cards you can play as an author.
That sums up my notes on character motivations!
Make sure to let me know if you have any other tips you'd like to see added to the list. And tell me, what character motivations do you love and loathe? Can you think of a specific author that has done character motivations in a unique or powerful way?
P.S. If you’re ready to take your characters to the next level, The Essential Guide to Character Creation is for you! In this 78 page ebook (which comes with an additional 25 pages of worksheets!), we talk in-depth about the process of crafting spectacularly memorable characters that readers will adore.
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!