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23 Powerful Examples of Character Motivation

What Is Character Motivation?

Characters need a motivation for their behaviour in screenplays and novels. But what is character motivation? I like this definition from Reedsy:

‘Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behaviours and actions in a given scene or throughout a story. Motivations are intrinsic needs: they might be external needs and relate to survival, but they might also be psychological or existential needs, such as love or professional achievement.’

Breaking it down then, good characterisation refers to WHO (the character); WHAT (their behaviour); and WHY (character motivation).

Character Motivation In Movies And Novels

With the above in mind then, in many genres and types of stories, character motivations are obvious:

  • In ALIEN and DIE HARD, both Ripley and John McClane need to survive. In addition, both feel a sense of responsibility and/or love to both their crewmates and family respectively. This leads to Ripley saving the ship’s cat Jones (she can save nothing else). McClane puts his life in further danger to save his wife Holly, even though he has effectively freed all the other hostages.

Other motivations are not so obvious, because they are existential needs:

  • In LEGALLY BLONDE, Elle goes to college to study law simply because her boyfriend goes and she wants to get him back. Over the course of the narrative, she realises she doesn’t need her boyfriend after all. In addition, she will discover she is not only exceptionally talented at law, everyone else will realise it too and that they have judged her unfairly.

Sometimes, external needs and existential needs will collide:

  • In my novel, The Other Twin, my protagonist Poppy refuses to accept her younger sister India killed herself. So Poppy embarks on a quest for the truth (existential need), which starts online with India’s blog … Which in turn then takes Poppy into a lion’s den of potential danger that puts her own life on the line (external need – survival).

23 Character Motivations

In the infographic above, I have listed 23 potential examples of character motivation. Some are existential; some are external. (There are obviously lots more than 23, but these cover some of the most common).

You will also see I have included role function, archetype and trope here, all integral parts of characterisation. This is why they are at the bottom of the graphic, as its ‘foundations’. Remember, role function covers stuff like protagonist, antagonist, secondaries, peripherals. For more in-depth info on all this, check out the links in this post and my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV Or Film.

I have also grouped character motivations into specific categories. Some are good motivations; others are bad; some are neutral. ALL are powerful enough to have acted as catalysts for some of the best characters of all time in produced and published content.

Now ask yourself …

• What is your protagonist’s motivation? Is it external? Existential? Both?

• What is your antagonist’s motivation for trying to stop him/her?

• What are your secondary characters’ motivations for helping or hindering your protagonist?

Good Luck!

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6 thoughts on “23 Powerful Examples of Character Motivation”

  1. Some characters are the scapegoat. They have no choice as the scapegoat role is designated to them, allocated to the character (Jax, Joe Blade Runner 2049, Ben S, Mickey Ward, a struggling boxer, (Fighter), Camille Preaker Sharp Objects, DescriptionChristine (Lady Bird )McPherson, I, Tonya…. are Scapegoated blamed bullied shamed since birth by their parents, … these characters are stuck in life circumstances and an intractable human flaw to scapegoat.

  2. Starkly absent is the (usually antagonist) motivation we call “Power”. But then I realized that power is a means. People perhaps don’t want power for power’s sake alone, but because it represents a means to obtain the other motives, such as greed, protection, etc. In fact, power is a general means that, once obtained, means you can get whatever your actual motivation is.
    Control means the same thing.
    So in Renaissance Disney movies like Aladdin and the Lion King, you have stereotypical (but VERY effective for the kind of story being told) antagonists like Jafar and Scar who seem to just want power for power’s sake, but really, if you pay attention to what they say and do (show don’t tell) when they’re actively pursuing their goals or when they achieve them, then you see that Jafar is motivated by Greed and Lust and Revenge, and Scar is motivated by Jealousy, Pride (no pun intended) and Hatred. Gaining power and control are actually means to an end, or rather, multiple ends which are the actual loci of their motivation.

    And you then see that classic good guys are looking for power and control too, but because their motivations are good, they don’t abuse the power once they get it, but they enjoy and are grateful for it and live happily ever after and use it for good to bless others and themselves.

  3. Same goes for wanting Freedom. We need to ask Why do they want Freedom? Freedom to do what? Wanting freedom implies there are stakes in whether they have freedom or not. So then that goes back to the more fundamental motivations again. What do they stand to lose or never obtain if their freedom is taken away (or not obtained)?

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