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?
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