How to Motivate Your Character

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.

Core Questions

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.

In Summary

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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7 thoughts on “How to Motivate Your Character

  1. Russ Welsh

    I absolutely loved this post. It helped me to affirm the two most important characters (in a feature script I am taking my time with) and their motivations. And, although I am currently only working out the synopsis, I have written a lot more with this post than without it. So thanks for that, Stavros.

  2. Mark Landen

    Does plot drive character or character drive plot? I say they are inextricably linked. If someone is having trouble with the inner aspect to characterization, the “why”, then perhaps the story concept isn’t right. Otherwise, you can have a character that does a lot of things but no real reason for doing so. An example I use often is a run of the mill kung-fu movie where there’s a lot of action happening, but why? Compare that to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the “why” drives the plot, and the plot drives the characters.

    Great post, can’t wait for the next one!

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree. And once the “why” is in place the “what” seems so much more convincing.

  3. Thor Stonewell

    Thanks for sharing.

    In my opinion one of the great things about a well-developed character is the concern and acceptance they receive on the part of the reader. When a characters motivations are known, described and explained it makes the character much simpler to accept. Even a “bad guy”, when properly explained, becomes less bad and more “different”.

    The world is full of people that are “different” than us. Books are full of “bad guys”. Perhaps we need to be more realistic between what is bad and what is simply different.


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