Dictionary.com defines motivation as ‘the act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way.’
As a technical device in stories motivation can be understood as something that involves two interwoven aspects – inner and outer persuasion.
Motivation Within and Without
Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his mental life – his values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, his outer motivation.
Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way – as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.
Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.
The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.
Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!”
The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical response to the goal, guided by his reasons for doing so.
Inner motivation explains why the hero physically responds to some challenge or opportunity, outwardly, in the way that he does.