What Is Character Motivation & Why Does It Matter?
Updated January 02, 2019
Reviewer Avia James
The history of humanity can be summarized in one simple word: motivation. Motivation is what drives people to build, work, eat, sleep, and do just about anything else under the sun. This applies to both nonfiction and fiction. In fiction, the character wouldn't be that great if they didn't have some motivation driving them.
Today, we'll be looking at character motivation in fiction, and then tell you how you can apply it to yourself and others in real life.
Character Motivation In Fiction
For both the protagonists and antagonists of a story, each character should have their motivation, a reason for why they're doing what they are doing.
For example, an antagonist usually isn't a good villain if they have no motivation for what they are doing. There are exceptions to this rule; for example, the Joker from Batman is commonly depicted with an unclear backstory, making him a being of chaos, and it works in that setting. However, for the most part, an antagonist usually has a reason for their actions, and their motivation may be understandable when viewed from another lens or perspective.
A good character will have a believable motivation. Humans in real life are complex creatures who will have motivations that change, are conflicting, and may be a bit confusing for many to understand. Good writers usually start with a basic understanding of each character and their motivations, and they will expand upon them as the story develops.
Here is a list of good character motivation traits.
Revenge is a time-tested motivation that speaks to a lot of people. Everyone's been wronged by someone else, and we sometimes fantasize about ourselves giving that person what they deserve. In fiction, this is usually an extreme situation. The antagonist kills the protagonist's family, and they seek out the antagonist to kill them and get revenge. In real life, it's usually less extreme. Someone may have told you that you couldn't get that job, and you want to get that job out of spite.
Money is a motivating factor for many, both in fiction and in real life. In fiction, it's pretty extreme. A man rises through the corporate ladder through shady tactics, or maybe does something illegal like join the mob, to gain power. In real life, you want more money so you can live a better life, and you may end up throwing a few coworkers under the bus to do it. Or you may run a business and end up mismanaging it.
Survival is an instinct found in all sentient beings, so it's always been an excellent motivator in fiction. In fiction, it's an extreme situation. A plane crashes, and the protagonist is the only survivor. The plane crashed on some island, and the protagonist must survive in the wilderness. In real life, it's usually less extreme. We eat, sleep, go to the doctor, and do anything else we can to live the longest, healthiest life possible.
Love is another motivator. We want companionship, and this emotion is always a big motivator in fiction, usually in extreme form. In fiction, the protagonist slays a dragon to save their love or gets involved in a heated love triangle. In real life, love may not involve dragons, but it's still a very complex motivator. Humans want love for different reasons. Sometimes, for companionship. Other times, out of obligation. Sometimes, just because they want to start a family. Whatever the reason, it's been a big motivator since the dawn of humankind.
We are curious creatures who want to learn more about ourselves or the world. In fiction, a character may be exploring ruins because they are curious about the past. In real life, someone may get into a scientific field because they want to learn more about science or find discoveries.
In fiction, some people are the heroes because they believe it's the right thing to do. The protagonist may be called on a great quest, and they do it because they want to change the world. In real life, this happens plenty of times. Someone may join the army because they believe they are serving their country. Others may get into politics because they want to change the system.
Some people are motivated just out of happiness. In fiction, someone may be adventuring because it feels good. In nonfiction, someone may do the same thing because of happiness. One of the main goals in life is to have as much happiness and entertainment as possible. It's a simple goal, but one that has motivated humanity for ages.
Figuring out yourself can be a huge motivator. For example, in fiction, a character may take a grand pilgrimage so he can learn more about his inner self. In real life, this may apply to many people. Someone may go to counseling because they want to know more about their inner psyche, or their unconscious motivations.
Unconscious Vs. Conscious
Conscious motivations are much different than unconscious ones. Sometimes, there are driving forces behind our actions, and we may not realize them unless we unlock our unconscious memories through counseling. A conscious character motivation would be something in the plot that drives a character forward. In a fantasy novel, a character's village is destroyed by monsters, so that's a motivation for him to learn how to grow stronger. But then, there are the unconscious motivations lying deep in their mind.
For example, the character may have other reasons why they are trying to be stronger. Perhaps they were once bullied as a child, and while it may not be a conscious motivation, the event that happened unconsciously reminded them of the time they were bullied.
A good writer would show the scenes of the character being bullied, but not let the readers directly connect the dots. Just like realizing your unconscious memories, you have to connect the dots yourself.
Character Motivation In Non-Fiction
Like good fiction, every character in real life has a complex list of motivations. Sometimes, those motivations are obvious. For example, you grew up in a low-income family, so you're motivated to go to college so you can get a better job. Another reason why you may be motivated to get a better job is that a long time ago, someone berated you for your job of choice, and while you may not remember the event, it is an unconscious motivator that you may not have realized.
In real life, everyone is a character who has their motivations. Life is your own story, and there may be protagonists and antagonists in the story, each with their complex motivation. For example, your boss may seem like an antagonist to you, but they may have their motivations. They may have grown up in a high expectations childhood, and are projecting their parents' behavior as they become an adult.
Other times, people's motivations may be complex. They may do one thing, and the opposite immediately after.
A Fun Exercise
Write down some people in your life. Friends, family members, neighbors, and people you consider to be your antagonists. Write down yourself as well. Think about everyone in your life as a character in a story. Look at their motivations. Odds are, you may know everyone's conscious motivations. However, you can't get into the minds of most people, or you may not know their backstory.
Instead, look for some unconscious motivations of yourself. Think about your childhood and try figuring out if there are any motivations for your actions. Perhaps there are. For some, it may be hard to recall their childhood entirely. There may be some events where you cannot remember due to trauma, and there may be times when you cannot remember because it happened such a long time ago.
Do a character study on yourself. You're more complex than you imagine, with dozens of traits, flaws, strengths, and motivations. By writing it down, you can better understand yourself.
If you want to know more about your motivations, it may be difficult to do it on your own. Figuring out your motivations can be a way for you to make better goals and find the drive needed to accomplish those goals. In cases like these, talking to a counselor can be the ultimate key to achieving your goals. They can do a character study on you and figure out your motivations, and perhaps the motivations of others around you.
They say that life is a stage, and we are the characters. While our stories may not have the same grand conclusions as for the stories in fiction, we are still complex characters who have motives that may seem complex or even contradictory. By doing a character study on yourself, you can get to the bottom of these motivations and find out what motivates you.