Character Motivation: The Ultimate Guide to Realistic Characters

A writer needs a lot of different building blocks to tell a good story and create believable characters.

That said, there are few components more important than a character’s desire and their motivation to do what they do.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What character motivation is
  2. Why it is important
  3. What are some good examples of character motivation
  4. How to build believable characters with believable motivation

What Is Character Motivation?

Character motivation is the driving force behind everything your characters do. It is the thoughts, dreams, wants, needs, and fears that give your characters life.

We all want something. In fact, we want many things. We want to succeed in life, we want to love and be loved, we want to avoid burning ourselves on the kitchen stove.

In short, everything we do is motivated by something. That something usually takes the form of an inner desire that draws us to something, or a fear that pushes us away from something.

Well-written characters are the same way. They are driven towards or away from something. They should never do something just because the story dictated it.

Whenever a reader says a character feels “flat”, the reason is likely to do with their motivations. If all your character is doing is moving from one place to another, doing whatever the plot dictates, then your reader will not feel anything for that character.

Why Are Character Motivations Important?

There are a number of reasons why you must include character motivations for as many characters as possible.

1. Relatability

The first, and most important reason why a character’s motivation is important, is relatability.

As mentioned above, we all have motivations that drive whatever we do. For example:

  • We’ll eat because our body is telling us that we’re hungry.
  • We’ll take a job because we desire financial security, even if the job isn’t necessarily something we like.
  • We’ll pursue a relationship because we value emotional intimacy with another person.
  • We’ll avoid a person because we don’t like the way they make us feel.
  • We’ll work harder in order to receive a promotion or an increase in money.
  • We’ll donate our time or money to an organization that promotes a cause we believe in.

There’s, essentially, nothing that we do without some motivation behind it.

Therefore, if a reader picks up a book, and the main character has no explainable reason for why he/she behaves, then the reader is likely to not care. Because we can’t relate to someone with no drive.

The reader might not be able to explain why a character feels off, but someone with a trained eye, like an editor or experienced beta reader, would be able to point to your character’s lack of motivation.

2. Realism

Similar to relatability, we want motivations because it’s realistic to have them (though not all motivations are realistic, and we’ll talk about that more below).

There’s not a person alive who doesn’t have motivation.

That is why every one of your characters (yes, all of them) should have some kind of motivation, something pushing them to do what they are doing.

You don’t have to develop a rich and complicated backstory for everyone, but you should develop and write down the basics for each. What are they in it for?

This is particularly true of villains. Let’s look at one prime example:

Case Study: The Marvel Cinematic Universe

One of the biggest criticisms of the otherwise acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that most of the villains are one-dimensional. They show up for a few scenes and are obviously evil, with little evidence to suggest why they are the way they are.

But there are two BIG exceptions to this rule:

  • Loki
  • Thanos

In the case of Loki, we know of his desire to take over the world, but over the course of the MCU, we learn of his inner desires to be loved by his father, and have the same acclaim as his brother. Loki has easily been the most popular MCU villain, and has shown up more than any other, complete with his own television show.

For Thanos, we see his desire to end half the life in the universe, but as we learn the story of his own planet (one that is relatable to most of us, as it touches on climate change), and we learn why he does what he does. We don’t have to agree with his methods, but it does make Thanos more realistic, which only increases the satisfaction of that character arc’s ultimate fate in Avengers: Endgame.

3. Characters Will Write Themselves

A third, and hugely important reason to include character motivations, is that it will make writing easier.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “the characters just wrote themselves”?

This is a common occurrence when you’ve got your character’s backstory laid out. When you understand what makes them tick, you will understand how they would react in any given situation.

This creates a highly coveted dynamic: a character-driven plot.

Trust me, you want that.

What Are the Different Types of Motivations?

There are a TON of different scenarios that you can use for your story. In fact, One Stop for Writers has a fantastic list of potential motivations to get you started.

However, when you dig deep into the science of motivation, you are almost certain to run across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who published a paper on the subject in 1942, entitled: “A Theory of Human Motivation”.

This theory presented five tiers of need that motivate us:

  1. Physiological: These are actual necessities of life, like food, water, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety: Though not quite as urgent as the physiological needs, security, health, shelter, employment, etc. all fall into this category, and are high on the list of priorities.
  3. Belonging: Anything to do with a relationship, particularly of the non-sexual kind (though that is included) goes here.
  4. Esteem: Motivations of esteem make us strive for confidence, achievement, the respect of others, etc.
  5. Self-actualization: Finally, last on the list are needs like morality, creativity, and other things we might consider indulgences if the other needs are not met, but are still important to us.

Here is a handy chart to get an idea of what these look like.

character motivation tiers

In modern times, this strict hierarchy has come into question. For example, there are multiple instances throughout history when privately-held moral motivations have superseded almost anything else.

However, this is still a useful way for writers to picture motivations pertaining to their characters.

You may also see these needs categorized under three categories:

  1. Basic Needs (physiological and safety/security)
  2. Psychological Needs (love, relationships, belonging, esteem)
  3. Self-fulfillment (self-actualization and creativity)

The important takeaway here is that some motivations will trump others if they are not met.

For example, it doesn’t matter how important your hero's quest is, if they can’t find water to drink and they are dying, all other things will have to wait until that need is fulfilled. Once the hero has met the basic needs, they can turn their attention on whatever comes next.

In a story, motivations of morality or idealism are great, but bear in mind that they will often come secondary to the other things on this list. This is not always the case, but it’s a good rule of thumb to live by. If you plan to break from these norms, make sure you have thought about it, and have a reason to do so.

Motivations Are Not Goals

It’s easy to confuse motivations and goals as the same thing, since both center on the wants and needs of a character.

The difference is that motivations are the underlying reasons why a character would set a goal in the first place.

Let’s look at an example:

In the first book of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, the main characters set out on a typical fantasy question from their home in the Two Rivers, to a place called Tar Valon.

They all share the same goal. However, the reasons for each of them going vary wildly.

Three of the main characters all want to go for their own self-preservation, and to protect the ones they love.

The guide character is there to protect the boys and keep them from falling into enemy hands, while her protector is there because he has sworn loyalty to her.

Another character comes because she wants to learn from the guide character, and yet another character comes only because she thinks that the main characters were misled by the guide character.

In short, they all had different reasons for being there, but their underlying motivations are clear. Together, they bring a wide web of desires into an otherwise straight forward fantasy quest.

Realistic Motivations? Not Necessarily

Just as all humans have motivations, we are also (almost all) irrational at some level. Take phobias for example. In almost all cases, the fear of something taken to excess can be very irrational, but still a good motivation.

And our motivations don’t have to be rational or realistic. In fact, an irrational internal motivation can lead to some incredible external action.

This is especially true in villains, where the motivations are often irrational to our perspective.

The Joker is a great example of this. Once we accept his motivations to create chaos wherever he goes. This is not something we can relate to, but once we accept that as his motivation, his actions become more clear, and we are suddenly more emotionally invested.

On the flip side, Adrian Monk from Monk has an irrational fear of almost everything. But when we come to understand that this is (largely) agitated by losing his wife, we come to understand. Additionally, when Monk’s other desires to become a detective again begin to supersede his fear-driven motivations, we really begin to care about what he wants.

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How to Show a Character’s Motivation

Okay, so we’ve covered why motivations are useful, and what they look like. So how do we incorporate them into our protagonist, antagonist, and so on?

Here are the steps I recommend to get started:

  • Step 1: Examine your basic plot and character. What needs to happen, and what kind of character would be best in this kind of situation.
  • Step 2: Build your character with the plot in mind. What will the character need to do in the story? What kind of motivation would urge the character to do those things?
  • Step 3: Examine the character’s fears. See if you can find a way for them to confront those fears through the plot.
  • Step 4: Create a motivation that supersedes their basic fear instincts, so that they are able to not only confront their fears, but also overcome them.
  • Step 5: See if you can have your character motivations change through the course of the plot. Perhaps they can be motivated by a want at the beginning. Then have them realize that the thing they need is actually something deeper. This is prime material for plot twists by the way.
  • Step 6: Find ways for motivations to conflict. There’s nothing more interesting to a reader than a hero with internal conflict over two very strong external motivations.

Once you’ve made it that far, here are some additional tips to better improve the motivation for your characters:

  1. Use backstory: Make sure that each character has at least a little backstory in mind. You don’t have to outline everything in their past, just enough to explain certain character traits.
  2. Have multiple motivations: Don’t limit things to just one motivation, otherwise your character will turn out like Michael in Lost, always interested in one thing and never having any other depth of character.
  3. Show, don’t tell: Yeah, yeah, you hear it everywhere you go. But finding ways to show a character’s motivations in their thoughts, dialogue, and actions is much more effective than a simple paragraph telling the reader what their motivation is.

Examples of powerful character motivations include:

  • Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
  • Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
  • The Joker in The Dark Knight
  • Monk in Monk
  • Rambo in the Rambo series
  • Walter White in Breaking Bad
  • Both Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
  • Elle in Legally Blonde

To Sum Up

Alright, so it’s fair to say that character motive is important. It determines the characters’ actions, makes them more relatable, and creates believable characters.

We learned that motivations are tiered, so one may trump another. For this reason, it is important to have multiple motives that conflict with each other to create conflict.

Lastly, we learned how to bring all of this together into your plot and characters. I hope this has been informational for you, and if it is, I highly recommend you check out some of our other posts, starting with these:



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