The Anatomy of Character Motivation

Much has been written about the importance of authentic character motivation and development in stories, and rightly so: Engaging and convincing characters are central to storytelling.

The reader or audience needs to know, at least implicitly, what motivates the action. 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 personality and circumstance.

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 explains the inner motivation of the characters who engage in it (the “why”).

Although the two seem different, they are two sides of the same coin. They entail each other. Characters are made manifest through their 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 the external—one’s job. It speaks to one’s moral makeup, compassion, and commitment to others, and perhaps to one’s need for excitement. It cuts to the core of Jack Traven’s character. 

Deep Character Motivation Questionnaire

In nailing down your character’s motivation, ask yourself the following questions:

1.What is your character’s outer goal?
2. What is your character’s inner motivation (conscious or unconscious) for pursuing this goal?
3. What is your character willing to do/sacrifice to achieve this goal?
4. How does the goal change during the story, and how does this affect your character?
5. 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 about character, they are a good way of sketching in the overall shape of the 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.


Authentic character motivation is an essential part of storytelling. It helps explain why the character acts in the way that he or she does.

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2 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Character Motivation

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Good post. One thing that’s worth mentioning is how the characters trades and flaws predetermine there course of action to obtain there goals. The main protagonist in Braking Bad Walter White has one goal which is to provide for his family and make enough money to ensure that his family will have what they need after he has died. Walt is an extremely proud character. When he is offered money from a collage friend he refuses what he regards as charity. Walt would rather come up with his own solution then accept help from others even if it means having to brake the law. This is a great flaw – Walt’s pride is what leads him down a path of self destruction that threatens his marriage and even his own life.

    In short : A single flaw or trade can predetermine a character’s course towards obtaining his goals


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