Brainstorming Characters: Motivation

Compelling characters are an essential ingredient to any good story; even in a plot-driven narrative, you’ll want your characters to be making tough decisions that drive the plot and grappling with both internal and external conflicts. Why? Because characters serve as a reader’s access point into the story. They are where the bulk of a reader’s emotional investment lies. As such, the central deception of storytelling is that the characters on the page are living, dynamic beings with depth to them. Fail in this illusion, and the narrative experience, quite simply, falls apart.

Writing convincing characters is, therefore, one of the central challenges of crafting a narrative. As such, writers tend to brainstorm attributes for their characters before they dive into the writing process. Now, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with interviewing your characters to find out what their favourite Netflix show is to binge, what their Starbucks order is, or what animal they’d like to be reborn as, the most crucial attributes of your characters are the ones that pertain to their narrative arc. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most important questions you should be asking about your characters.


What does your character want the most at this particular moment in time?

Motivation is everything when it comes to characterization. And motivations are dynamic—they shift and evolve as the story progresses. But in order to get that momentum rolling, your character is going to need to want something as soon as you plop them into chapter one. This short-term goal will create all the tension and conflict you need to get your story off the ground.


What is your character’s ultimate goal in life?

Does your character have dreams? What do they aspire to be? Where do they see themselves ten years from now? Knowing your character’s long-term goals will help you envision their character arc and their primary motivation. That doesn’t necessarily mean your character’s goal in the story is to achieve some lifelong dream of theirs; simply put, understanding the key driving forces behind your character will help you make informed decisions about the actions they take and the manner in which they engage with the plot.


What is preventing your character from achieving their long-term goals?

Story needs conflict. You’ll want to throw as many challenges and obstacles at your characters as you can; how rewarding that moment when they finally achieve their goal (or come to the conclusion that they no longer want to achieve said goal) at the end of the story will be is inextricably tied to the amount of difficulties they faced in reaching that moment. Ideally, there are both external forces (antagonists, for example) and internal forces (character flaws, for example) preventing your character from getting what they want most out of life.


How do your character’s goals conflict with each other?

The easiest way to make a character compelling is to force them to make difficult decisions. If your character is a superhero, they probably don’t have to mull over whether to stand idly by or save a school bus full of innocent children from plummeting off a bridge. But if you decide to drop their love interest off the bridge at the same time, well, now your character’s got a bit of a dilemma, don’t they? As illustrated by our example, the best way to pit your character’s motivations against each other is to have a selfish motivation of theirs become incompatible with a more selfless or plot-driven motivation. In other words, a character’s personal desires conflict with their need to serve the greater good. Another example of this would be if your character were to choose between sacrificing a piece of jewelry in order to save the world or keeping their precious treasure all for themselves. That being said, if you can force your character to choose between two selfishly motivated desires (say, keeping their family safe versus pursuing a more legitimate and honourable lifestyle steering clear of the shady family business), you’ll wind up with an even juicier conflict.


What lesson does your character need to learn in order to achieve their goals?

Remember, characters should have arcs. Those arcs don’t necessarily need to end with character growth, but the character should always, at the very least, be presented with an opportunity for character growth. What nugget of wisdom does your character lack at the start of your story that they need in order to complete their arc? Figure this out, and you’ve not only got the trajectory of your character arc mapped out, but you’ve also stumbled upon the building blocks of your novel’s central theme.


Stay Tuned

That’s all a bit tougher than figuring out what your character’s theme song would be, isn’t it? But a character without dynamic motivations is really nothing more than a caricature. Still, motivation isn’t the only key ingredient in our character casserole. Next time, we’ll have a look at character strengths and weaknesses. Until then, happy brainstorming!