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Motivation - Why'dja Do That?

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Sat Nov 27, 2010 1:43 am
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ultraviolet says...

Motivation is a key thing in writing. If the characters don’t have a reason to be doing something, then why are they doing it? If your character doesn’t have a strong motivation, then your reader will wonder why they don’t just back out now. And if a reader asks that, they will probably wonder why they’re still reading, too. Don’t let them ask that.


Death is probably the biggest motivator in commercial fiction (or, plot-driven fiction). If the threat of death is in the air, chances are it’s your characters motivation, whether their sole one, or one of many complicated ones.

Death in your novel can be either physical (your character will literally die if they don’t act), professional (as in the down-and-out lawyer with one last chance to prove himself), or personal (the person with a crushed spirit who’s searching for some reason to go on).

The most important thing when using this motivator is to make sure that the threat of death is actually threatening. Make the opposition as strong (if not stronger) than the lead. Someone capable of killing them, either metaphorically or literally.

Relational Jeopardy

By relational jeopardy, I mean the risk of losing someone dear. This can be physically (a friend or relative has their life or well-being at risk), or emotionally (the person trying to mend a broken relationship before it’s too late to work things out).

The thing to remember here is that the lead won’t go to far lengths for just anyone - usually it’s someone they feel they cannot live without, that they would never forgive themselves for if they lost them.


Revenge is where a character thinks they’ve been tricked or outed, and they’ll do anything to get what they think they deserve. Revenge is a strong motivator because it is often linked to other motivations (like relational jeopardy - their friend or relative in harm’s way has been killed or hurt in some way, and so the lead wants to make up for it by hurting or killing the antagonist).

The lust for revenge often makes the lead do impulsive and irrational things, things that they wouldn’t normally do, and they use whatever made them lust for revenge in the first place as a justifier - you hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you.


Desire can be towards a thing (a thief out to steal the crown jewels), a person (unrequited love, or lust towards an unattainable woman), or towards achieving a status (a job or title, such as MVP, head coach, or starting lineup, in sporting terms).

Desire often (but not always) sprout from being told no, you can’t do this. Being told that it’s impossible. And so the lead wants to prove those people wrong, which ties into my next motivator.

Proving Themselves

Characters can prove themselves in many areas, such as financially (yes, I can support my family, and I can do it without your help), intellectually (I am not stupid, I am smart, smarter than you), or any other number of ways.

The point of this motivation is that someone at some point in time told the lead that they can’t do something, they can’t achieve something, that they’re too small or young or inexperienced. And the lead will do anything to prove that they are strong enough, smart enough, good enough.

Saving Face

This is the person whose reputation has somehow been tarnished, and they will do anything to clear their name. The harmless working man framed for murder. The faithful wife framed for adultery. The honest politician framed for taking bribes. No matter what, someone set the lead up, and the lead will do anything to prove they’re innocent.

Some Things To Remember

Now, I know that there are many more, much more complicated, motivations out there. These are just the big ones I thought up. And these motivations often intertwine and overlap. Good. That just raises the stakes, which creates suspense, which keep the reader flipping pages.

Whatever your character’s motivations, make sure they have them, and make sure they’re strong enough to justify your character’s actions. If a character doesn’t have a reason to be in the conflict, a reader won’t care and won’t want to keep reading.
"Blah blah blah. You feel trapped in your life. Here is what I am hearing: happiness isn't worth any inconvenience."

The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him.
— Stanislaw Jerszy Lec