How to Find Your Character's Motivation

Note: This article is an overhauled + updated version of "How to Create Character Motivations That Will Rivet Your Readers", which originally appeared on the blog on May 8th, 2015.

Note: This article is an overhauled + updated version of "How to Create Character Motivations That Will Rivet Your Readers", which originally appeared on the blog on May 8th, 2015.



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Writers, it’s time to talk about Why-Power! 

Specifically, the why behind your characters’ story goals. Strong goals drive plot, of course, but it’s your characters reasons for wanting to achieve those goals that lend your story context and power. How so?

In today's article, we're going to break why motivations are such powerful storytelling tools, as well as the two main types of motivations and how you can create well-developed motivations for your own story. Ready to get started? We have a lot of ground to cover, so let's dive in!



What do character motivations help writers achieve?

Character motivations are far more of a storytelling powerhouse than many writers realize. Outside of simply driving your characters to action, motivations’ key importance lies in creating emotional connection with readers. 

As we’ve often discussed, humans are emotional beings. We feel emotion deeply and respond to emotion viscerally. When writers dive deep into their characters’ motivations — which most often stem from an emotional need — they create an emotional connection that will rivet their readers. How so?

Well, it’s all about empathy. Emotions are often evocative. If readers can place themselves in your character's shoes, you'll have no trouble hooking them into your story for pages to come. But creating connection isn’t the only way that your characters’ motivations can serve as a powerful storytelling tool...

Check out these other awesome reasons to give your characters’ motivations a bit time and attention today:

They reveal characterization. Because motivations are often a result of a character’s dissatisfaction with some element of their life, they can tell readers a lot about what the character values, how their insecurities or struggles affect their daily life, their beliefs and backstory, and more.

• They define character roles. Is your character doing something good for bad reasons or vice versa? Are they bravely pursuing a noble-hearted goal or creating chaos just to see the world burn? Maybe they're just trying to get by. Whatever the case, revealing a character’s motivation can help readers distinguish their role in your story with ease.

• They create tension. Your character's motivations and the stakes involved in their journey are often intrinsically tied. Understanding why your character needs to achieve their goal, as well as what will happen if they don’t, is an easy way to create tension that will keep readers flying through the pages of your book.

• They encourage character development. If your character has a strong reason to take action, there’s likely not much they wouldn’t do to achieve their goal, even going so far as to face their biggest doubts, fears, and insecurities. Whether they rise above or cave to the pressure, your characters’ motivations will drive the events that encourage them to evolve throughout your story.


The Many Types of Motivations...

When considering your characters’ motivations, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a great place to start. If your character lacks any one of the elements in the hierarchy, they’ll likely harbor dissatisfaction in their lives. And remember, dissatisfaction is often the root of motivation. 

Image Source:  Simply Psychology

Image Source: Simply Psychology


Let’s break the hierarchy down together, shall we? According to Maslow, one may be motivated by:


1. Need. Food, water, and shelter are our most basic needs. Without them, it’s unlikely we'll pursue any goal other than attempting to fulfill these needs.

2. Safety & Security. Once our basic needs have been met, most people look toward building a life in which they feel safe from emotional and bodily harm and in which their needs are met on a more stable, ongoing basis. 

3. Love & Belonging. With safety and security established, inner wellbeing becomes the next major need. People begin to seek out strong relationships that will help them maintain mental and emotional wellbeing, confidence, and a strong sense of self.

4. Accomplishments & Self-Esteem. Once one has established their sense of belonging, they’ll begin to look toward fostering a sense of accomplishment and pride in their personal and/or professional lives.

5. Self-Actualization. With all other needs met, people finally to turn their eyes toward achieving their fullest potential, working to bring their biggest dreams to life.


(Note: Keep in mind that these levels aren't self-contained. They can interact and overlap at times.)

Any number of character motivations can be filed into one of the five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but to apply those needs on a more literary level, let’s take a look at the two main types of motivations found in stories: external and internal.

External motivations are physical. They prey on the bodily needs and/or the security of the main character or those they love. As a result, your character may be motivated by the need to: 

  • Find food, water, warmth, or shelter.

  • Establish financial security.

  • Escape an abusive relationship.

  • Protect others from harm.

  • Act in self-defense.

  • Save the world from an evil power.

  • Survive a natural disaster.

Or any other number of physical needs.

Internal motivations, on the other hand, occur within a character, typically preying upon their beliefs, mindset, or emotions. This type of motivation manifests itself in a much wider array of areas, including:


1. Personal Fulfillment. Examples:

  • To achieve one’s life passion.

  • To find love or friendship.

  • To experience spiritual enlightenment or satisfaction.

  • To avenge one’s self or a loved one.


2. Fear or Peer-Pressure. Examples:

  • To live up to family or societal expectations.

  • To fit in with others.

  • To not die alone.


3. Guilt or Insecurity. Examples:

  • To atone for a past misdeed.

  • To overcome bad habits.

  • To gain confidence.

4. Curiosity. Examples:

  • To invent something new.

  • To solve an issue.

  • To explore new territory.

  • To learn something new.

Don’t see the motivation you have in mind for your character listed above? No worries! So long as your character's motivation pushes your plot forward and inspires a connection with your readers (and perhaps fulfills one or two of the other elements we discussed above), you’re in business.

But how do you decide which motivations will best serve your story?

How to Define Your Characters’ Motivations

Crafting well-developed motivations for your characters goes beyond a simple, “What do my characters want and why do they want it?” Let’s take a look, instead, at some of the questions that can help us create complex motivations that will rivet our readers:

1. How is my character dissatisfied in life? Which element of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has gone unfulfilled? If they are missing out on multiple levels of the hierarchy, which level is most immediate?

2. What events led my character to become dissatisfied in this way(s)? Was it their upbringing? A bad life choice? The result of a specific relationship?

3. What has kept my character from taking action to overcome this dissatisfaction? Was it money, time, fear, expectation, or something else entirely?

4. What will finally push my character to take action? In what situation would the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action?

Walking through these first four questions is how you ensure your character’s motivation is as strong as it can be. But we’re not done yet! Let’s flesh out characters’ motivations out a bit more by addressing the following questions:

5. What does my character’s motivation reveal about who they are? Does it say anything about their personality, backstory, fears, desires, world views, or so on?

6.  Have other characters’ in my story experienced the same source of motivation? If so, what actions have they taken? Do their actions differentiate from those of my main character and if so, what does that reveal? 

(Asking yourself this series of questions is a great way to define the importance of a key event in your characters’ lives and to acknowledge each of the characters involved as separate, complex beings.)

7. How might my character’s motivation change throughout the story? What will my character learn as they strive to achieve their goal? Will they grow as people or fall victim to a doubt or fear? How will this change alter their actions in my story?

Crafting complex motivations that rivet your readers takes time, but it’s well worth the effort to make use of the strength and power a strong character motivation can add to your story. So, what do you say? Are you ready to create a few character motivations of your own? Let’s get crackin’!

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