Character Motivation: Why It’s Important and How to Write

Character motivation is the key influence on how characters think and behave. Their actions are dependent on their internal desires.

Motivations determine fundamental aspects of your characters, and they can even be the driving force behind their character arc

Character motivations are a crucial part of storytelling that shouldn’t be overlooked. In this blog, we’ll look at the different types of character motivation, why they’re important, and how to write them.

What is character motivation?

Character motivation is what influences a character’s actions within a story or a particular scene. Motivations can be determined by intrinsic needs, such as something that a character must have to survive, or an extrinsic want, such as a material desire.

A coffee cup with a motivating slogan on a table next to a notebook and pen.

Why is character motivation important?

Whatever type of story you’re writing, whether that’s a novel, short story, or even flash fiction, character motivations are important in explaining how and why your characters act in certain ways.

  1. If character motivations aren’t developed, then it’s possible that decisions and actions made by characters can be inconsistent or nonsensical. Clear motivations allow for consistency.
  2. Motivations can strengthen the themes of a story. Character goals are often aligned with the bigger ideas in a story. For example, a story about the dangers of greed might have a protagonist wanting to get rich, or one with a theme of family may have a character motivated to provide for their children.
  3. Readers find a story more credible and engaging if character motivations are clear and make sense. This helps with the necessary character development that makes stories even more memorable. 

How to decide on your character’s motivation

Character motivations vary widely depending on the type of story you’re telling and, of course, the type of character. Deciding on what motivation best fits your story is a crucial first step towards creating an interesting character who has an important role within the narrative.

There are a few useful methods to help choose your perfect character motivation:

Develop a backstory

A well-developed backstory is important when writing a complex character, but it also helps when deciding on character motivations.

Backstories naturally influence what motivates someone. If they grew up poor, maybe they want to achieve wealth. If they were wronged by a villain, they may want revenge. 

A character’s past acts as a driving force for how they behave in the present and what they aim to achieve in the future.

Create your antagonist

A story with a distinct, strong antagonist can provide a straightforward way to decide on your protagonist’s motivation. 

In popular fiction, such as superhero films and action movies, the goal is usually clear: defeat the bad guys. Striving towards that goal is a decisive motivation for your character.

Note their goals

Any character should have goals, and these are what motivate them. They might want to travel the world, start their own business, or find love. All of these are potential motivations for any character.

Other tips for choosing a motivation

If you’re still unsure about what character motivation will work within your story, try brainstorming a few different ideas to see what makes the most sense and would fit naturally.

As a starting point, you can even try using a character motivation generator to get inspiration for various ideas.

Types of motivation

Character motivations can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Intrinsic: This type of motivation is determined by something internal, such as thoughts or feelings. These could involve finding inner peace or happiness, so a character will take action to achieve these.
  • Extrinsic: Physical rewards or other motivations from the external world create extrinsic motivations. For example, earning money, gaining power, or catching a criminal. While these are extrinsic, most of these will be accompanied by a form of intrinsic motivation as well.

Types of external motivation

  • Survival
  • Money
  • Fame
  • Success
  • Threats
  • Competition
  • Laws

Types of internal motivation

  • Love
  • Self-fulfilment
  • Happiness
  • Pease
  • Morals
  • Pleasure
  • Purpose
  • Curiosity

How to write character motivations

Even if you’re clear on what motivates your character, writing realistic motivations is another challenge. Here are a few tips for writing character motivations:

  • Make it believable. Readers won’t care about a character if their motivations don’t make sense.
  • Use external motivations if your story needs something to push your character to make difficult or quick decisions. These extrinsic motivations, such as a need to survive, are often more pressing than internal ones.
  • Include intrinsic motivations for deeper character development. Even if they follow a flat character arc, internal motivations assist in creating compelling characters.
  • Combine multiple motivations. Extrinsic motivations can create intrinsic ones, and there’s rarely ever just one factor that motivates someone.
  • Motivations can change. A character might have one motivation in one scene and then another in the next. However, these changes should only occur if they make sense within the story, and too many motivations can be confusing for readers. Generally, a protagonist should also have at least one core motivation that is consistent throughout the story.

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Character motivation FAQs

How does character motivation affect a story’s plot?

A clear character motivation offers a clear way forward for the plot. Each plot beat can be determined by how each character acts, which in turn is influenced by their motivations.

Why does character motivation matter?

Character motivation is an undervalued element of storytelling. It impacts every decision a character makes and, therefore, the direction the plot takes. Therefore, it’s important to take time when planning your story and really consider what motivates your characters.

What types of characters need a defined motivation?

Character motivations can be written for any type of character in your story, although it’s most important with your main protagonist. 

Side character should have their own motivations, although these don’t always need to be signposted to the reader. Even if they appear in a single scene, there may be a unique motivation which you decide on and write into how they act.

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