Character Motivation

My oldest son used to shower to wake up.  Now he showers to style his hair.  Did I mention he has a girlfriend?

My Dear Daughter began wearing make up the moment she really, really, really liked a boy.

Middle is growing his hair out.  Self expression is big in the third grade and says, “Hey, I’m as cool as you and I refused to cut my hair when Mom wanted me to.”

Youngest, who irrationally cries long and hard at the thought of wearing anything besides swishy pants and a t-shirt, bought three dress shirts during our school shopping endeavor.  Tony Hawk has a lot of pull and I feel like sending him a personal thank you for expanding my son’s wardrobe.

Motivation.  For every action, there is a reason.  If not, go back for a rewrite.  Your characters should never act willy-nilly, but should have some reason that motivates them.

It doesn’t have to be big.  Nor does it have to be life-changing.  But if your MC suddenly starts bathing, there better be a reason for this drastic, albeit fabulous, behavior modification.

Still not convinced?  Why do you shop at a specific grocery store?  Why do you line the shoes up in the coat closet? 

In real life, our every move is molded by our experiences.  Every change in behavior is dictated by a conscious or unconscious decision.  Nothing we do is random.  Even if everything we do seems random. 

Do you know what moves your characters, or did you simply give them a trait that sounded cool?  How can we as writers consciously learn the motives behind the movements?

I bet you’ll think twice the next time you pull on your swishy pants while your Significant Other buckles up his/her khakis.


15 responses to “Character Motivation

  1. The biggest obstacle for a writer is creating a believable character — someone who is almost indistinguishable from a real person. Someone whose behavior is as predictable or as unpredictable as moves of a real human being. If as a writer you don’t know what moves your character more likely then than not your readers would not care about him or her. They simply won’t care.

    • Very true, unmaskd. Thanks for putting in your two pennies on the topic. I think it’s so important to understand that we can’t simply right something because it sounds fun, but that we have to understand the reason behind the action.


  2. I try to give mine motivation for everything they do. I like to write little scenes that will never make it in the main story, but are only there for me to have a fleshed out character in my head.

    I favor comfy pants and t-shirts.

    • Barbara, I know a fair number of writers who do that as well. It helps to make your characters concrete in your own mind. Then when we put them on paper, we are better equipped to have them act within the limits of their personality.

      Got shorts and a t on right now!

  3. I just changed grocery stores because the former favorite was remodeled and is now huge and inconvenient. So I switched to one of the last old, small, darkish stores in town. I’m sure it will explode into a super store before long. For now, I’m drawn to its convenience, its cozy feel, and the fact that I know where everything is and don’t have to walk five miles to find it.

    That pretty much sums up the way I like to do things from writing to promotion–cozy place to work, convenience (new, fast computer) and organization (which means I know where everything is even if you could never find it in this mess, but cozy, office.

    Am I that clear about my characters’ motivation. I sure hope so.


    • Hear, hear!

      Convenience and comfort are big for me. I will pay more to shop in a place I know where everything is. There is nothing worse than wandering through a grocery store trying to make sense of the layout when I could have been in and out of Hanks in two point two seconds. And isn’t our time worth something?

      Nice analysis of yourself. I’m sure someone with your wherewithall has your characters fine tuned!

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  5. I write with my characters motivation in mind, but sometimes, even after leaving hints, the reasons are lost in translation. This is something that I’m discovering. Even though I’ve left hints sometimes readers aren’t getting it, which means I’ve done something wrong, or they weren’t smart enought to pick up on my oh so subtle cues. Alas, I think it is more the first than the latter. Right now I’ve found myself in that situation with a YA short story I wrote. So now I have to go fix it. Yay for me 😦

    • Elisa,

      It is a good thing. Better to learn it early than muddle through years of unclear writing. I think that’s why it’s so important to have a good crit group and some awesome beta readers. A simple “huh?” can mean so much!

  6. Right you are! As Somerset Maugham said, “You can never know enough about your characters.” Any by golly they’d better want something right away, even if it’s just a pair of swishy pants.

  7. I love to see the motivation behind every action when I’m reading a story. The motivation doesn’t have to be reasonable, it doesn’t even have to make any sense ( I know I did things for the most bizarre motivations imaginable) but I just like to see that it is done with a motivation. That helps me to get inside the character’s head and understand him/her a little better.
    P.S: The first time I’ve ever put on make up was because I really, really liked a boy! 🙂

  8. I think those are the little details that really round things out. I also like the thought of swishy pants. 🙂 Makes me smile.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

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