Character Motivation in Stories

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

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In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge examines the important topic of inner and outer character motivation in relation to story structure.

It’s important to note that much of the knowledge developed by the likes of Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and others, is aimed at the screenplay, but is, nevertheless, of direct benefit to novelists too. It is my opinion that some novels would benefit from the injection of pace and a deeper understanding of story structure.

Character motivation à la Hauge

Hauge reminds us that motivation exists on two levels. Outer motivation is the goal that the character, chiefly the protagonist, strives to accomplish by the end of the story. It is the answer to the question: What is the story about. Solving a puzzle? Catching the murderer? Winning the love of a beautiful woman? These questions and answers are all visible, plot orientated, outer journey motivations.

Inner character motivation, by contrast, is related to the inner journey of the protagonist. It is the answer to the question: Why does the protagonist strive to achieve her outer motivation? The answer always involves, at least in part, the protagonist’s desire to gain self-worth and an understanding of her place in the scheme of things.

Because it belongs to the inner journey, it is, by definition, invisible and exposes its presence through the outer actions of the character. Inner motivation is more tightly related to character growth and theme than it is to plot, although it motivates, explains and impacts plot.

In The Matrix, Neo strives to understand why the world he inhabits feels wrong. He seeks to answer the question: What is the matrix? Having been given the answer to that question, he then strives to discover whether or not he is The One. Both these questions are fundamental to his growth as a person and inform the decisions and actions he makes.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s character motivation stems from his obsession with proving that time travel is possible—this in order to correct the error that led to the death of his wife. It underlies his every thought and action.

Here, then, are the chief aspects of inner and outer motivation, à la Hauge:

Outer motivation is visible, desires outward accomplishment, is revealed through action, and answers the question: What is the story about?

Inner motivation, by contrast, is invisible, seeks to secure self-worth, is revealed through dialogue and action, and answers the question: Why does the character desire the goal?

Summary

This post sheds light on character motivation as aspects of the protagonist’s inner and outer actions.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “Character Motivation in Stories”

  1. Thanks for the thoughts, Gerhard. Yes, a film franchise can allow for character development in the hero and other characters. It’s what long form television does well. Judging by the current crop, many film franchises and sequels seem stuck in first gear in this regard, though.

  2. One of the great things of a film franchise is we get to see how a single character evolves from the sequel on wards after having accomplished his primary goal in the first film. In the Harry Potter series the protagonist’s primary goal is to discover who he really is : “You are the boy who lived” – This is accomplished in the first film leaving the rest of the series on the path to Harry defeating Voldemort.

    More than forty years since the first film we still get excited over stories featuring Rocky Balboa. The character’s outer goals change as his inner goals evolve. In the first film Rocky wants to prove to himself that he can go the distance against the champ.

    “When that final bell rings people are going to see that I’m still standing and it will prove that I was not just another bum from the neighborhood.”

    In the second film his goal is to become the champ. As Adrian holds his newborn child in her arms she looks to Rocky and says : “There’s one thing I want you to do for me – Win.”

    In the third film Rocky needs to be reminded where he comes from to get back on top and with the help of Apollo Creed that is what happens before the rematch against Clubber Lang.

    “When we fought you had the eye of the tiger. The only way your going to get it back is to go back to the beginning.” – Apollo Creed

    In the fourth film Rocky’s goal is to avenge his friend.

    In the fifth film after losing everything, Rocky wants to be a winner again by taking a unknown boxer (Tommy Gun) under his wing .

    “I know how Tommy makes you feel , he makes you feel like you are winning again. But you are losing your family.”

    In the sixth film Rocky wants to prove that he has one last fight left in him.
    “What makes you think you can take on the champ at your age?”
    “I still got some stuff in the basement.”

    In the seventh film ( Creed) Rocky needs to find a reason to keep going.
    “Everyone who I have ever cared for has either died or moved on and I’m still here.”

    In short : What do you do after the primary goal has been accomplished ?

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