Character Motivation

dig deeper

As promised, here are some of the best takeaways from the “character motivation” workshop I attended at the Writers in Progress studio last weekend. It was an invaluable experience. Prompted to push beneath the surface when it comes to character goals, I had a break through moment of clarity concerning my major character. At long last, I figured out what this guy is really after. The dots were already there, sprinkled throughout the manuscript. I just needed to connect them and pull the resulting strand to the surface.

I’ve already begun my rewrite. And the difference that truly, deeply understanding this character and what he wants is transforming this story, bringing it to a whole new level, more deeply felt, clearer and with a much more satisfying ending.

I’m counting my blessings right now.

Of course every story is unique and so are our break through moments. So in general here are some broad tips from the workshop that I think will work for anyone writing for fiction:

  • Remember that readers, above all, are looking for the strongest emotional connection they can make with a character.
  • Dig deep when it comes to character motivation. Push past obvious, superficial goals–a new job, a new love, etc–to reveal the core of the character, what he truly seeks, what he’s afraid of (whether he realizes it or not) and how this determines his behavior.
  • Writers sometime let their own baggage get in the way when they’re drilling to the core of a character. Step aside please. And don’t worry. There are enough neuroses to go around.
  • Fear is often a red flag for character motivation. You need to explore what your character fears most.

Okay, enough.

We want to give a shout out here to Elizabeth, the winner of our coveted candy cane pen prize for sharing some of the worst lines we’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

We’re also gearing up for our 6-month anniversary at Write Despite on July 1. Thanks to all of you who are following us. Please spread the word. Over the next six months, we’d like to feature more guest posts and short Q&A conversations with writers. Let us know if you’d like to take part.





7 thoughts on “Character Motivation”

  1. Michael, you nailed this for me. My character starts out not really doing much of anything and then is thrust into a situation in which she is definitely motivated to do something. She doesn’t elect to her motive, as you say, but ends up striving for something nevertheless. Thank you for clarifying. –Cathy

  2. Think of it this way: Characters don’t always elect to their motives. Sometimes events thrust motive onto a character. Don’t get lost in the semantics. “Motive” can imply choice or desire. But a man in burning building has a motive: to get the hell out of the building. A protagonist has to be striving for something–whether or not he wants to or is even consciously aware of what he’s striving for. Otherwise there’s no story and no character development, right?

  3. Love these tips. It’s forced Karen and me to talk about character motivation and how I’m worried my novel’s main character has none. But aren’t there stories in which life simply happens to a character and those occurrences force him/her to do something and, ultimately, to change? Think of Harry Potter in the first book, for example. What are some others? What do you all think? Does a protagonist HAVE to have motivation?


  4. Thank you for these helpful tips. Congratulations on your upcoming anniversary; looking forward to your next six months–your plans sound very interesting, please count me in. (Prehaps we could do a blog exchange.)

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