Character Motivation

You can have your character want anything as long as it’s strongly motivated. More importantly, you can make your reader believe almost any goal you set up as long as you justify it with motivation.

When I think of this, I think of the movie, Romancing the Stone. Remember when the main characters were running from the bad guys and they are surrounded by rough-looking men in the village they wend up in? Michael Douglas says, “Write us out of this one, Joan Wilder.” The leader suddenly freezes and with a wide-eyed expression says,”You’re Joan Wilder? The American author, Joan Wilder?” Come to find out he is a fan of hers and all the guys have read her books. The script writers made that scene completely believable, which gave the townsmen proper motivation to go through all the trouble to help them escape the bad guys.

When you consider a goal, make sure you think up the why, or motivation, and make it very strong:

  1. Is the goal important to the character?
  2. Is the motivation urgent?
  3. Is the goal within the realm of possibility?
  4. Does the character have skills and flaws to make this story unique?
  5. Can you use this characters goal, motivation and conflict to help the reader understand the character?

In the movie Ever After, Danielle, (who is played by Drew Barrymore), has the goal of wanting to save her farm, which includes all the servants. When her stepmother sells off one of the servants to pay for her debt, Danielle dresses as a court lady to pay for his release with money the prince tossed her for “borrowing” her beloved deceased father’s horse.

Her motivations are:

  1. The servants have become her loved ones, i.e., they took the place of her parents. How could servants become so dear to her? Because the servants were kind to her and gave her love and acceptance after her father died. Her mother died at childbirth. She was very much loved by her father when she was a child. When her beloved father died suddenly of a heart attack, she lost his love and was subjected to the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsister.
  2. She wants to hold the farm together. Why? Because that’s all she has left of her father. The farm represents better days, days when she was loved and accepted by the world.

Make sure when you set up your goals and motivations that you don’t make it coincidental.

When someone tells you that your story isn’t believable, it isn’t because you sent the characters to a planet in another galaxy. It isn’t because your character survived a two thousand yard plunge to earth. It’s because your GMC wasn’t logical. Your GMC wasn’t appropriate to your characters. What the reader is telling you is, “I didn’t believe these people would find themselves in this situation or make these decisions.”

Example — you will have a hard time convincing readers that an accountant could do emergency surgery in the jungle with matches, a flashlight and a Swiss Army knife. A fireman is better, someone who trained as a paramedic, who walked away from an internship, now you have slipped that character into the realm of possibility. Give him a downed plane’s emergency kit, and you are well on your way to fixing the problem.

Or, if you want to stick with the accountant, have the victim be his 8 year old daughter. They just survived a plane crash and they are the only two alive. His daughter is choking and needs an airway. Give him a Swiss Army knife and a half-full ink pen. Since she is going to die for sure if he doesn’t do anything, I think he would be motivated to try to create an air passage for her. Don’t you?

Sometimes books start off with coincidences, like a chance meet. This is okay as long as you have the characters react to results of the meet within their GMC’s that you have set up for them. In Ever After, The prince does happen to ride through Danielle’s farm in an attempt to escape his father’s men, (he’s rebelling against an arranged marriage) — which is the heroine and hero’s first meet. But it’s how they react to that coincidence — that is, they keep within their character that makes this coincidence all right. Danielle always has her goals in mind. She doesn’t use the money to buy food or improve their lot. She uses the money to rescue a servant, which supports her main goal of preserving the farm, keeping the place intact with all of the original servants.

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2 thoughts on “Character Motivation

  1. Great examples on Goals, Motivation, & Conflict, Gloria. Coincidences are so easy to fall into while we’re writing–this helps bring out how to make things really work. Wonderful!

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