Character Motivation: The Why Behind the Action

Last week, we discussed character agency–the active role your main character should take in your story. Active characters make for engaging plots and tighter pacing, but how do you make an active character? Characters with strong agency aren’t just wildly active, doing things to move the plot along willy nilly. Their actions need to make sense for their character, and these actions and choices should stem directly from their primary motivation.

Today, we have Jessica James on the blog to talk a little about what motivation means, and why it’s so important. Take it away, Jessica!

I finished a music degree before I ever finished a novel, and one of my favorite things is discovering ways one craft can inform the other. For the longest time, character motivation was a difficult concept for me to grasp—until I heard it’s simply “the why behind what the character wants.”

And then I thought to myself, “Oh. It’s an ‘I Want’ song.”

In musical theater, the ‘I Want’ song functions for a character to explain their goal, the thing that will propel them forward throughout the story. It’s hard to find a successful musical that doesn’t have an ‘I Want’ song, and usually it happens before the 20 minute mark. Showing a character’s motivation early helps the audience invest in their story, and as writers, solidifying an ‘I Want’ for a character as they’re introduced builds an important connection for readers.

Here are some examples from musical theater you might be familiar with:

Hamilton: “My Shot”

Wicked: “The Wizard and I”

Rent: “Rent”/“One Song Glory” (in ensemble casts, all the characters want something)

West Side Story: “Something’s Coming”

Beauty and the Beast: “Belle”

Cinderella: “In My Own Little Corner”

Legally Blonde: “What You Want” (yes, that’s literally the title)

‘I Want’ songs connect the audience to a major character. Take Hamilton for example:

I am not throwing away my shot

I am not throwing away my shot

Hey yo, I’m just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot

From the first bars of the song, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics tell us that Alexander Hamilton is ambitious to a fault when it comes to his personal success and his vision of America. “My Shot” explains his desire to escape his poverty and make a name for himself (he even spells it out!) That’s imperative to understanding the character’s motivation, and later, his actions. Especially when they become questionable in the second act.

Understanding a character’s motivation draws a vital personal connection between the character and the audience. It’s what makes us clap when our hero succeeds or cry when they fail. ‘I Want’ songs are often the most memorable, the ones we hum to ourselves far after the finale—because when they work correctly, these songs impact our experience of the entire story. They make us care.

So what does that look like in a novel?

You need your readers to root for your characters. That’s what’s going to keep them reading. So you have to make what your characters want—their motivation—clear.

It’s not always going to mean your characters explicitly state what they want before the inciting incident. But sometimes, it’s very effective. For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss says, “I protect Prim in every way I can, but I’m powerless against the reaping.”

And then she shows us that she protects her sister. It’s why “I volunteer!” gives us chills.

Suzanne Collins shows us the driving motivation that Katniss lives by: her desire to protect her sister more than anything. It’s the thing that shapes her life-changing decision to volunteer for the Games in Prim’s place. And it makes us care, right away, in that first chapter.

Maybe you don’t need to state your main character’s motivation explicitly, but it has to be clear to the reader. Because when the reader cares about your characters, they’ll root for them, and keep turning those pages until the very end. You can have the coolest world building, the highest concept, the prettiest prose, but it all means nothing if your audience doesn’t know why they should care about your characters.

So if you’re worried that connection isn’t happening, you might be missing an ‘I Want’ song.

Thank you, Jessica!

As Jessica said, building a compelling character motivation and establishing it early is key to a strong, character driven narrative, and creating a meaningful character arc. So let’s get into it–here’s a list of questions you should ask about your main character to nail down what their primary motivation is. Keep in mind, you can do this exercise for your book as is to see what your character’s motivations are in this draft, but you should also think about whether these answers are working. Don’t be afraid to change direction and make your characters different for your next draft if it’ll sever your story better.

  1. What does the MC think they want?
  2. Why do they want it?
  3. What do they actually need?
  4. Why do they need it?
  5. How do they plan to get it?
  6. How do they need to get it?
  7. What’s stopping them?

To ensure a satisfying character arc with lots of tension, consider one or more of the following:

  • Make 1 and 3 in conflict so they must learn how to shift their goal.
  • If 1 and 3 are the same, consider making 2 and 4 in conflict so it’s about re-contextualizing why they want something.
  • Make 5 and 6 in conflict so they make a conscious choice to change their plans, or to change their aims.
  • 7 should be a list of multiple things–consider the physical/tangible barriers as well as emotional/internal barriers.

To create engaging character conflict, look at the motivations of multiple characters and see where their motives align and where they’re in conflict. This will create meaningful differences between your characters that will create tension in their relationships, but also have greater impact on the plot itself.

Once you’ve completed this exercise and you feel good about the direction of your character’s motivation, you can revisit last week’s homework. See what changing your character’s motivation does to their agency, and which events can now be directly linked to their actions and choices.

Jessica James PhotoJessica James is a SciFi and Fantasy writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two Lapponian Herders, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Neville Longbottom. You can find her on Twitter at @literarilyjess yelling about the stories she loves and running the #ThursdayAesthetic hashtag, or in the wild with a giant cup of coffee and her laptop.

Rosiee Thor is the co-creator of BYOMentor and the author of the YA novel TARNISHED ARE THE STARS, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2019. You can follow her on twitter at @rosieethor or on her website, www.rosieethor.com

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