Character Motivations in Storytelling: Make Your Characters Believable!

character motivations
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As storytellers, our greatest challenge is creating characters that feel human – flawed yet inspiring, complex yet understandable. The key getting this right is planning out their motivation within the story.

So, you’re going to need to think deeply about what might drive your character – their hopes, dreams, obsessions, fears, and even the hidden traumas that drive their actions.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • What character motivation refers to.

  • Some common character motivation types.

  • How to come up with motivations for your own characters!

Let’s get started by looking at both internal motivation and external motivation in your fictional characters!

What Are Character Motivations?

character motivations

Character motivations are the reasons behind a character’s actions, decisions and narrative journey. They are the “why” behind a character’s actions throughout the story. Motivations give characters depth, dimension and emotional resonance that hooks readers. There are two types of character motivations:

Internal Motivations

These are the internal psychological needs, desires, fears and inner demons that drive a character from within. Internal motivation comes from a character’s personality, values, past experiences and deepest longings. Examples:

  • Redemption or belonging

  • Abandonment or failure

  • Self-improvement or inner peace

  • Guilt, shame or self-doubt

External Motivations

These are the tangible goals, obstacles and interpersonal conflicts that characters work towards or against externally. External motivation often involves overcoming or achieving something. Examples:

  • Justice or revenge

  • Survival of a life or death situation

  • Wealth, power or professional success

  • Protecting loved ones or upholding moral values

The best character motivation will include a mix of internal and external struggles!

Motivations are key because they determine a character’s actions, choices and emotional journey throughout the story. Well-written motivations make a character’s decisions feel logical, believable and true to who they are as a person.

This is what turns characters from cardboard cutouts into ‘real people’.

story character thinking about motives

Examples of Powerful Character Motivations

Survival and safety motivations:

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s motivation is survival – to live through the games and get back home to her family.

  • In The Revenant, Hugh Glass’s motivation is to survive and get revenge after being mauled by a bear and left by his hunting team.

  • In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy’s motivation is to escape the prison system and gain his freedom.

Psychological motivations:

  • In Fight Club, the narrator wants to find meaning in his life through increasingly illegal and dangerous activities, while at the same time rebelling against societal masculinity.

  • In Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting wants to overcome his past, win love, and live up to his potential as a brilliant mathematician.

  • In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash has paranoid schizophrenia but wants to be in control of his brilliant but fragile mind.

Philosophical/moral motivations:

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is driven by justice and morality to defend an innocent black man falsely accused of rape.

  • In The Kite Runner, Amir wants to redeem himself for his past inactions by risking his life to save his friend’s son from the Taliban.

  • In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler wants to be a decent man and save as many lives as possible during the Holocaust.

Interpersonal motivations:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers are driven by their forbidden love that goes against their families.

  • In Mean Girls, Cady wants to be accepted by her peers and popular among the Plastics.

  • In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs wants to impress her demanding boss Miranda Priestly and make it in the fashion world.

  • In Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s motivation shifts from his personal romantic goals with his love interest, Mary Jane, to protecting her and others from danger.

Professional/financial motivations:

  • In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort wants to make millions through corrupt stock trading and live the high life.

  • In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner wants to create a better life for his son by becoming a finance broker against all odds.

  • In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg wants to create a revolutionary platform to make money, be successful and get revenge.

story character deciding which way to go

How To Create Believable Character Motivations

Here are some of the best ways to use motivation in your character creation.

Motivations Come From Backstories

A character’s motivation should be real and come from within – their past, values, personality, and emotions. Dig into their history to see what events and people made them who they are.

For instance, if your character is all about justice, maybe she saw injustice as a child and felt helpless. That scar will drive her to seek fairness as an adult.

Be Consistent While Still Allowing Change

Motivations should stay reasonably consistent throughout the story, but they can change with big plot events and character growth. Just make sure you lay the groundwork so those changes feel true and logical.

For example, a character driven by greed could have an epiphany that rearranges their priorities and makes them more altruistic or family-focused. But that should be set up and make sense based on who they are.

Managing Multiple, Opposing Motivations

Most people aren’t single-minded. Multi-layered, conflicting motivations create depth and tension and a great character arc.

A parent might be torn between protecting their child at all costs and principles that require personal sacrifice. An executive might be stuck between wanting career success and a loving relationship. That’s great emotional drama for your story!

Showing Hidden Motivations to Create Tension

Not all motivations are stated or even known to the character themselves. Showing hidden motivations, fears, and unconscious drivers through action and dialogue creates tension in your story.

For instance, a character’s public motivation might be to take down a corrupt company. But her private motivation, even unknown to her, is revenge for childhood trauma inflicted by a wealthy businessman. Uncovering those layers is what makes your story interesting!.

a knight deciding what to do

Character Motivation Case Studies

Jay Gatsby’s Obsessive Pursuit of Daisy in The Great Gatsby

At first glance, Gatsby’s motivation seems to be to get Daisy back. His parties, wealth, and fake identity are all about winning her over.

But Gatsby’s motivation goes much deeper. He’s an incurable romantic and wants to relive his past perfection. Daisy is the embodiment of wealth, status, and beauty that the poor farm boy from North Dakota could never be. Getting her back is a way for Gatsby to erase his past and remake himself through sheer force of personality and money.

This romantic, quasi-religious desire to transcend his class roots is Gatsby’s downfall. It makes him reckless and delusional, and he rejects reality when Daisy chooses Tom over him. His singular motivation consumes him and destroys him.

Katniss Everdeen’s Drive to Survive and Protect in The Hunger Games

From the moment she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss’s motivation is simple: survive and protect.

Since she became the provider after her father’s death, Katniss’s motivation is sacrifice, loyalty, and keeping those she loves from harm. She rejects the Capitol’s brutality and chooses humanity and life.

As the series goes on, Katniss’s motivation grows to include rebelling against the Capitol, but at her heart, she’s still motivated by protecting the powerless – with Rue being a great example of this.

Her morality and desire to protect the innocent are her counterbalance to the games.

Katniss’s familiar motivations of family and humanity make her a hero we can root for. Her story is about her trying to hold onto those human motivations in the face of the Capitol’s inhuman motivations of power, control, and violence.

an executive typing

Bringing Character Motivations to Life

While we know character motivations are important, actually putting them on the page is a different story. Here are some exercises, prompts, and techniques to help you create deep motivations that move your characters and story.

Writing Exercises and Prompts

  • Write journal entries from your character’s perspective. What are their innermost thoughts, fears, and desires?

  • List your character’s short-term goals and underlying motivations. Then write a scene where they’re going after that goal and show their true motivations through subtext.

  • Create a character bio: backstory, pivotal moments, and how that all adds up to their current motivations. You can download mine for free!

Motivations and Personalities

A character’s motivations should be a part of who they are – personality, background, archetype, and voice. For example, a vengeful anti-hero will have different motivations than a humble caregiver.

Always see motivations through the eyes of your specific character and decide what only they would think.

Show vs. Tell

Instead of stating what your character wants, show their motivations through their actions, body language, decisions, and most importantly, the consequences of those actions.

Be subtle and use subtext in your dialogue when it’s possible. Avoid “on the nose” dialogue as much as you can!

Dialogue & Inner Monologue

Dialogue can show a character’s motivations through how they react to other characters – both in terms of what they say and what they don’t say.

Inner monologue lets you get into a character’s inner conflicting thoughts.

Changing Motivations

Just as people’s goals and motivations change due to life events, so should your characters’ motivations.

As they hit setbacks, learn new things, or grow throughout the story, let their motivations change and deepen. Keep them fluid but true to the underlying emotional wants and needs of the character.

Motivation Mapping

One of the best ways to make sure your characters’ motivations are deep and intentionally explored throughout your story is through visual motivation mapping.

This is where you create a visual map or outline that tracks each major character’s key motivations and how those driving forces intersect to create conflict, tension and dramatic story events.

How to Motivation Map

List out your main characters and their core motivations, short term goals and deeper emotional/psychological needs. You can use a spreadsheet, mind map or notecards organized by character to do this.

Then, explore how those various motivations intersect and create consequences when they collide with other characters’ desires.

character motivation

Add Motivation-Driven Conflict

The friction and fallout when two or more characters are motivated towards opposite outcomes is one of the biggest sources of narrative tension!

Your motivation map should highlight these motivation conflict points as areas to develop high stakes scenes, subplots and major story events.

Don’t let these opportunities for conflict go to waste!

Motivation Drives the Story

Just as importantly your motivation map should help you analyze whether your characters’ motivations are logically and consistently driving the sequence of events that make up the overall narrative and character arcs.

If a character’s actions or the plot progression doesn’t align with their established motivations, the story can fall apart.

Clashing Motivations

As well as strengthening an existing story motivation mapping can also be a generative technique for new ideas.

What new dramatic situations would arise if you introduce a new character whose motivations conflict with your existing characters? How would flipping a character’s core motivation create ripples across the entire story?

Try out these “what if?” scenarios. This is actually a great play to try using AI tools that are dedicated for fiction writers.

I recommend using Novelcrafter for this – you can add all of your characters and their backstories and motivations to your novel or screenplay’s Codex within the tool, then the AI chat can help you find new ideas for creative storytelling that are based on already-existing characters and plot points! It’s a great way to use AI for storytellers.

You can read more about how to use AI to come up with story ideas here in this article!

Character Motivations Pin

Sum Up

So, that’s character motivations in a nutshell. You always want to consider how your character motivations will impact the conflict and tension in your story. People respond emotionally to stories, so make sure that your motivations tug on some heartstrings or are inspirational in some way!

Let me know how you come up with character motivations in the comments below! If you’re looking for some assistance with developing your characters or their motivations, check out my story coaching services! You can book a free 15 minute call with me to see how I can help you step closer to your perfect characters and plot points!

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