All About Character Motivation
NEWSFLASH: great characterisation should lie at the heart of every narrative, whether that’s a novel or screenplay. These characters should drive the plot forward and engage audiences emotionally. What’s more, modern audiences and readers demand nuanced, layered characterisation as standard in the 2020s.
One essential element that brings characters to life is their motivation – the driving force behind their actions and behaviours. I like to call this the ‘WHY’ of characterisation.
Put simply, character motivation can be summed up as “A character wants or needs something for some reason, but will have to strive to get it.”
Understanding Character Motivation
It’s true that life-and-death stakes are the most common motivations, especially in thriller, horror, crime fiction, action-adventure, fantasy, science fiction or mystery. However, it is NOT true that life-or-death stakes are the only motivations available to writers.
Character motivation encompasses intrinsic needs such as survival instincts, psychological desires like love or power, or even existential aspirations such as personal growth or professional achievement.
Put simply, character motivation can be anything you want (as long as it fits the story).
Types of Character Motivation
1) External Needs
These motivations are driven by external factors like survival, safety, financial security, revenge, or achieving a specific goal.
As an example: in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s primary motivation is to protect her sister Primrose from being chosen in The Reaping. When she is chosen, Katniss goes in her sister’s place. In the arena, she will be forced to kill others in order to survive. MORE: 23 Powerful Examples of Character Motivation
2) Existential Needs
These motivations stem from internal, emotional desires. They often involve themes like love, acceptance, personal growth, identity exploration.
Carrying on with the example of The Hunger Games, Katniss has very complex existential needs in both the movies and the books. Unlike many female leads pre-dating the last decade, she is no two-dimensional kickass hottie.
She suffers survivor’s guilt from the first time she is in the arena, plus she wants to save as many as she can. This is why Katniss reluctantly becomes the face of the resistance against President Snow and his Capital cronies. MORE: Grab your FREE masterclass on characterisation
3) Conflicting Motivations
Sometimes characters face situations where external needs clash with existential ones leading to dilemmas that add depth to their development.
Returning to Katniss, this happens again. Ironically, the more people she saves by becoming the emblem of the resistance, the more Primrose is put in danger – the one person she wanted to save in the first place. By the end of the narrative, Katniss has won but at a great cost because her beloved little sister is dead.
The Power of Character Motivation
i) Driving Plot Progression
Characters’ actions dictated by their motivations propel the story forward, creating conflict and tension. Remember, Katniss only wanted to save Primrose in that first book and movie … but by surviving the arena, she became the face of a movement.
In addition, Katniss is also a hunter and able to use a bow and arrow. This will help her survive the arena and become a symbol of the resistance. MORE: Top 10 Fearless Female Archers In Movies & TV
ii) Emotional Engagement
Well-crafted character motivations evoke emotional responses from audiences who empathise with their struggles and desires.
Most of us have loved ones and understand how vulnerable they can be, especially when they’re very young. The horror Katniss feels when 12yo Primrose is chosen at The Reaping is palpable because we feel that same horror.
iii) Depth, nuance and layers
Understanding characters’ motivations allows writers to create multi-dimensional characters whose choices align with their personalities and experiences.
Though Katniss is only 17 herself, we understand she is better equipped to survive the arena than Primrose. Not only is Primrose too young, Katniss has been ‘parentified‘. She is her family’s main care-giver and provider because of their mother’s mental health issues. Katniss is much more likely to survive the games, which she does.
iv) Audience Connection
Relatable character motivations help viewers/readers connect more deeply with the story, fostering a lasting impact.
Katniss has to face life-and-death-stakes in a literal fight to the death. This is common in thrillers and action-adventures, of which The Hunger Games is both.
However, that is not where Katniss’ character motivation ends. Because she also has complex existential and conflicting needs, she has become an icon with fans of the books and films.
Even if we don’t like the franchise, writers can agree Katniss is an example of great characterisation for these CRAFT reasons listed (not just opinion!).
Character motivation is an essential aspect of storytelling that adds depth, authenticity, and relatability to your writing. By understanding WHY your characters behave the way they do – whether driven by external needs and/or existential desires – you can craft stories that resonate with your target audience or readers on multiple levels.