Monday, November 1, 2010

What Motivates Your Character?

One key element in creating a compelling character is the ability to CARE.

What does your character care about? What is the goal? Let’s use as an example: a boy who loves baseball.

This element of caring sets the character up in how he/she is going to live life, how he’s going to react to certain things. Giving your character something to care about commits her to her attitude or philosophy toward life.

What next? We know what our character cares about, so what?
We have to challenge him, threaten her and what they care about.

Conflict. You throw him into a situation that challenges the part of him that cares and threatens the thing he feels is important. Example: the boy who loves baseball. Up the stakes: Perhaps he has a physical limitation and he can’t play baseball. So he collects baseball cards instead. Up the stakes: His precious collection is stolen. You create risk. This doesn’t always have to be through a villain—it can be weather, hard times, a moral dilemma, friction between the characters. The twists and turns of your plot will come from these things.

How does the character react?
With emotion (physical & mental) How does baseball boy feel physically and emotionally?
With action: How does he go about trying to overcome this conflict or obstacle?
Remember that ACTION causes RE-Action.

Motivation is what causes the character to act. Is it to save his own life? Someone else’s he cares about? To preserve her reputation? To recover what has been lost?

The reasons relate to the character’s inner character. Something drives him to rescue the kidnapped child, slay the dragon, challenge the alien invaders, or track down the mass murderer.

Motivation often comes from a desire for change. Give a character so compulsive a desire to make a given change that he can’t let it be, and you have the basis for a story. And your character MUST change. It doesn’t need to be huge, it can be subtle. It can be a character’s struggle with addiction, mid-life crisis, trying to get out of a rut, a change in attitude toward something or someone.

Readers don't necessarily examine stories looking for the motivational aspects. However, they instinctively know when they aren't there. They'll know the story is flawed and will stop reading.

So, take the time to examine your character's motivation and what he/she cares about. It will help deepen and round out your hero's personality and help the reader care about him/her.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her novels, Cowgirl Dreams, and the just-released sequel, Follow the Dream, are based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.
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  1. Very good points. If the character doesn't care about something, why should the reader?

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. It's fun making those character profiles. Hobbies and interests, character flaws and positive aspects. If the character isn't three-dimensional, nobody's going to care about him or her. Good post.

  3. Excellent points, Heidi. Drama is all about action and reaction. I keep telling that to the actors I direct, and keep reminding myself of that when I write. LOL

  4. This is one of the situations when I bless my years of acting experience. I always try to figure out what my characters want and what's stopping them from achieving it, even if the character doesn't realize it.

  5. Timely questions for my writing. Thanks.

  6. Terry posted a great question here. To that I would add: If the character doesn't care about something, how can the writer?

    When writers tell me they have a great concept for a story but got stuck after chapter one or two, there's almost always an under-motivated protagonist involved. Once a character--a child of your imagination!--has a deep, all-consuming desire for something, how could you possibly stop writing until s/he gets it?

  7. Yes indeed! Movies and acting have a lot to teach us fiction writers. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Very good post, Heidi. As readers, we want to identify with the characters, root for them, care about them, worry for them.

    I read a book recently where I didn't care about the protagonist. He seemed made of cardboard.

  9. Irene Bennett BrownNovember 2, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    Great post, Heidi. And I like Kathryn's description of motivation: "a deep, all-consuming desire for something."

  10. Everyone cares about something. Even the crook, which is probably why he/she is a crook, even if it's just not to get caught. Or, I heard of some cases where they care so much about getting caught that they increase the risks, hoping they will get caught. Sometimes I think little kids having a fit hope you'll stop them before they're forced to increase the fit. Anyway, good post.

  11. Thanks for the reminders, Heidi. When the inner need drives & motivates the outer goal, characters get exciting! So easy to appreciate when someone else does it well, so hard-earned in my own writing!

  12. I love this. I'll have to read it a few time. :o)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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