Much has been written, over time, on the importance of character and character development in stories, and rightly so. An engaging and convincing character, is, in my opinion, one of the most important elements in the well-crafted story. But if character is such an important part of your story, then it follows that what motivates character action is equally important. Readers and audiences need to know and understand precisely why it is that a character acts in the way that he or she does. Outer actions or events are convincing only if they are a fitting response flowing from the personality and circumstances that the character finds herself in.
The Two Sides of Motivation
In previous posts I’ve talked about the importance to a story of the inner and outer journeys of a character. If the outer journey describes the external movement of the tale — the “what” — the inner journey describes and explains the inner movement — the “why”. Although the two seem ostensibly different, they are inexorably bound together. They entail each other. So, another way to see motivation is as having an inner and outer dimension. Outer motivation operates at the level of the external goal. Here, a series of external events elicit actions from your characters. In the movie, Speed, for example, Officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) has to keep the bus moving at a certain speed to ensure that a bomb inside it doesn’t go off. The reason why someone would risk one’s life to try and prevent this from happening, however, goes beyond external reasons — one’s job. It speaks to one’s moral make up, compassion, and commitment to others, and perhaps to one’s need for excitement — it cuts directly to the core of Jack Traven’s character.
In seeking to nail down your character’s motivation, it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
What is your character’s outer goal?
What is your character’s inner motivation (conscious or unconscious) for pursuing this goal?
What is your character willing to do/sacrifice to achieve this goal?
How does the goal change during the story, and how does this affect your character?
Is what is at stake for the character the highest it can be? (Higher stakes make for better stories).
Although these are by no means the only questions to be asked with regards character, they are a good way of sketching in the overall shape of a character arc. They also draw attention to the “what” (outer) and “why” (inner) aspects of your character’s actions — a requirement of any good story.
Motivating your character’s actions is an essential part of effective storytelling. The outer goal is directly related to your character’s inner life and is motivated by her core concerns.
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