I wrote a blog on inciting incidents a while back that touched briefly on character motivation, but today I want to delve more deeply into the topic—what makes for a strong motivation and why it’s important.
For me, character motivation is important for two reasons: it shows me who a character is and it guides the plot.
Let’s start with the obvious one: character development. How does defining a character’s motivation help develop their character? It shows the specificity of the character’s experience. The more specific the motivation, the more clearly we get an idea of what’s important to the character and who they are. For instance, what if you have an abstract motivation, like the classic woman who “wants to have it all.” Your character wants to be respected in her career, but also find love and have a family. She wants to be happy and fulfilled in every area of her life. There are a million ways she could achieve this, which makes it a really abstract goal. It doesn’t tell me what’s unique or specific about the character. It has also been used so many times in books and movies/TV that it’s become a total cliché. So when I see this motivation in a query, it tells me that the author has relied on an archetype, rather than fully developing a character.
When you get more specific with your character’s motivation, it fills in the lines of who she is. For instance, if she wants to get the big promotion to prove that she is smart and capable, after being told by her mother all her life that she isn’t. Would she kill for it? Maybe. Would I read that book? Yes. So long as there’s more detail and texture to her and her mother’s characters, and I’m given vivid, sensory descriptions of the cigarette-stained couch she slept on throughout high school that show me how badly she wants a different life for herself. And there’s murder. Or thoughts of murder.
The important thing is that the motivation has detail, nuance and emotional depth. Those things will show me the uniqueness of the character’s experience, which will make her feel like a real person I can connect to.
Sometimes I’ll get submissions where it seems like the author came up with the concept of the plot, and then threw together a character to move through that plot. My problem is not so much that the author came up with the plot before the character, it’s that they didn’t really spend time on the character, or build the character from the inside out. And I’ll see it in their motivation, or lack thereof.
For instance, let’s say your character is an actor, who’s decided to leave the acting world for the world of banking. His parents have been on his case to get a real job for awhile, and so he gets a job in banking. On the surface level this may sound like a solid motivation, but it still begs the question: why banking? Of all the “real jobs” a person can get, why did he choose banking? Was he always good at math? Does he have a positive memory of winning Math Field Day as a kid? (Yes, Math Field Day was a real thing when I was a kid. No, I did not win, so my memory of Math Field Day is bitter and angstful, and would not be a good motivation for me to give up agenting for banking.) Was winning Math Field Day the last time he felt like his father was proud of him? Now you’ve got specificity, you’ve got an emotional connection to math, and that helps fill out his motivation.
But you also need to explain why he decides to leave acting. If his parents have been telling him to get a real job forever, why is he only doing it now? What happened that made him either a) decide to listen to his parents, or b) give up acting? Why couldn’t he continue to go on auditions while he works in banking? Anytime a character makes a major life change, there needs to be a solid reason why he decided to do one thing and not a million other things. So make sure you’ve fully thought through what your character’s motivation means for his character development. Make sure there’s a character-driven reason for the action, even if you came up with the plot first.
Now for the plot-guiding side of character motivation. Part of the reason it’s important to establish your character’s motivation early (in an inciting incident) is because a character’s motivation points the story in a certain direction. It says, “This is what I’m trying to achieve. This is what you’re reading the book to find out.” It provides a focal point for the plot.
Let’s say your YA protagonist’s motivation is to compete and win a cooking competition show, because she wants to be a chef someday, and more specifically, she wants to work in the kitchen of one of the judges of this show, hence it’s important that she gets his attention. Let’s say you establish this motivation in the first chapter, but then she goes away to summer camp and has adventures there, until she eventually competes on the show. This kind of plot would be unsatisfying, because not all of the action would revolve around her motivation. You might say, “Well, she has the motivation of competing on this show AND learning how to steer a canoe, so all of the plot is relevant.” While a person might want to do both of those things, your character should have one primary motivation that guides the plot. Having multiple motivations can muddy the story.
But that doesn’t mean that the book must only be about the cooking competition. She might also have a love interest and family issues which create sub-plots that will be mixed in with the cooking action. She might go a whole chapter without thinking about cooking, but the point is to keep your eye on the prize and not radically shift the focus of the plot after you’ve established the motivation, or else we won’t see the development of that thing we were turning the pages to find out. Because eventually we will lose interest and stop turning the pages.
How does your character’s motivation establish who he or she is? Is it specific enough? Does it guide the plot? If you’re having trouble answering any of these questions, you might want to take a deep look at your character’s motivation. Because if you can’t answer these questions, the reader won’t be able to either.