A collection of musings, articles and news about romance fiction.

Writing 101: Motivating Your Character

Character motivation can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s where you get to ask, over and over, ‘but why?’ – and not get slapped for it. Creating motivation for your character is not only a great brainstorming exercise that encourages your muse, it’s also critical to developing a believable plot – or at least, a plot that your reader is prepared to believe. Without proper motivation that suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

As mentioned in a previous post on the Four W’s of Character Development, motivation is a fundamental aspect of building your character. Motivation is what drives your character, it’s the engine that gets that vehicle moving.

Motivation gives your character credibility, depth, and will create that emotional empathy with your reader.

So, it’s important. Don’t scrimp on the motivation. When you establish clear motivation for your character, s/he can literally get away with murder, in the eyes of your reader.

One way to create motivation out of the ether for your character (and we’ve mentioned already that there are so many different methods writers can use, what I suggest here is merely what works for me) is to drill down to their core belief system, and their internal and external needs.

Harking back to my Year 8 social studies lessons, needs are what MUST be met in order for you to 1) survive, and 2) grow/develop. To explore it further, we’ll look briefly at the psychological theory put forward by Abraham Maslow in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic of physiological needs must be met before one can focus on any higher level needs.

For example; a body needs food, water and shelter from the environment, and will pursue those needs until they are met. If they are not met, then the person may feel anxious, stressed – and deficient (hungry, thirsty, cold, wet, etc).

Once those basic needs are met, the individual can then focus on other needs, such as security – is the shelter safe from attack, are the members of my family/tribe/group safe, am I wounded/avoiding danger, etc.

At each stage when a need is met, the individual can build upon and lift their focus to the next stage of ‘need’, such as social, belonging, family, etc.

Maslow described our hierarchy of needs as:

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: those things needed for our physical survival.
  2. Safety: those things needed to make us feel secure, safe, comfortable.
  3. Love/belonging: those things needed for us to feel engaged, accepted, loved, welcomed, etc.
  4. Esteem: those things that make us feel respected, recognised, worthy, and reflected in our self-respect and self-esteem.
  5. Self-actualisation: the realisation of our full potential, the drive for accomplishment and self-improvement/self-mastery.

But how do we relate this to our writing, and specifically, to our character?

We’re going to start with what our character NEEDS.

Motivation is WHY your character thinks, feels, acts and reacts the way s/he does.

I’m going to break motivation into two basic tracks –

  1. Deepest Desire
  2. Fundamental Fear

Deepest Desire

Primary Motivation: what does your character want, seek, crave, desire? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character needs to feel safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list of twenty. Then make another list. You’ll find the first list are obvious needs and motivators. In the second list, there will be some things that may surprise you, intrigue you – and be a great, realistic, believable, compelling motivation for your character.

Newton’s Law of Motivation:

For every deep desire, there is an equal and opposite fundamental fear.

Each Deep Desire will have an equal, opposite and reactive Fundamental Fear if the desire (need) is not achieved.

Deep Desire vs Fundamental Fear

Fundamental Fear

Primary Motivation: what does your character dislike, fear, shun, hate, and is repulsed by? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character fears and prevents him/her from feeling safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list for each track.  Make another list. Write as many deep desires and fundamental fears you can think of for your character, and select what works for you.

Then create the backstory for your character – how they developed these deepest desires and fundamental fears – you now have motivation that adds depth to your character – and possibly to your plot (but that’s another post!).

Feel free to download a Motivation Worksheet.

Good luck, and get writing!

One response

  1. This is my first time pay a quick visit att here and i am in
    fact impressed to read all at alone place.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:54 am

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