51 Character Motivation Examples for a Clear, Compelling Arc

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

Need a few character motivation examples to get those wheels turning? Or even to just get a better grip on what character motivation is

I don’t blame you.

Motivation is a tricky concept in the realm of storytelling, especially when you’re new to the craft. 

It’s not a goal, but it’s goal-adjacent. It should be compelling and easy to understand but also connect to the abstract experience of human fear and desire. Motivation should evolve, but it also has to stay rooted in the character’s identity and backstory.

Yeah. It’s a pretty big ask. 

Fortunately, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. You’re about to learn: 

  • How to define motivation
  • The role it plays in your story
  • How to use this storytelling element effectively.

And of course, you’ll get what you came for: 51 character motivation examples to inspire your own novel.

Let’s start with the basics.

What’s the Point of Character Motivation?

In the interest of clarity: character motivation is not the same as a character goal

A goal is what your character wants. Motivation is why they want it.

Let’s say your protagonist wants to solve a murder. That would be their goal.

But why is solving a murder important to them? Is this their opportunity to make a name for themselves? Would solving this murder help them atone for letting a killer go free ten years ago? Are they obsessed with justice and can’t tolerate unpunished crime?

These deeper desires are what drive your character’s goals—both the overarching story goal and the smaller objectives they pick up along the way.

Motivation is an essential ingredient in character development for a couple reasons.

First, it makes it easier for your reader to connect to your characters. You may not see yourself reflected in goals like “hunt for dinner” or “volunteer for the Hunger Games.” But you probably understand the drive to survive and keep your family safe. Those are the deeper desires (motivations) driving Katniss’s goals.

Second, a compelling character motivation justifies those bold choices that make a story so enticing. 

Suppose your murder-solving protagonist might be able to get a step closer to finding some answers if they infiltrate a crime ring. Your reader wouldn’t find it believable that they’d do something so dangerous if they were only motivated by basic curiosity. 

But what if a bunch of innocent people died because they once let a serial killer get away? Now they’re not driven by curiosity but by a need to make things right and finally find inner peace.

Motivation matters.

Different Types of Character Motivation

Four blue post-its on a white wall, each reaching "Accept," "Love," "Empower," and "Advocate."

Before we dig into some character motivation examples, let’s talk about the two different types of character motivation. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Also called “internal motivation,” this is the kind of impulse that comes from (you guessed it) within. When a character is driven by intrinsic motivation, they’re chasing inner fulfillment, trying to escape inner pain, guarding their values, or trying to build a sense of identity. Stuff like that.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is all about external needs and desires. This includes things like survival, finances, social approval, and taking down a corrupt government.

Basically, if the changes your character is most desperate to see are changes outside of themselves, they’re driven by extrinsic motivation.

What Type of Motivation is Best for Storytelling?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have different strengths in storytelling.

External motivation creates compelling external conflict. This is because the character is driven by forces they cannot control and reaching for outcomes they have limited power to achieve. 

Let’s look at Katniss’s situation again. If her reality weren’t so dystopian, she wouldn’t have to be so survival-obsessed. But it is and she does.

Deepening the conflict is the fact that Katniss can’t save herself with inner growth or a change in perspective. Her world created her motivation and continues to be a constant threat to her survival.

How can internal motivation compete with that

I’ll tell you how.

Intrinsic motivation lets you go deeper with your characters, which often means helping your reader connect with those characters emotionally.

When a character is motivated by selfless love, our hearts melt. When we realize the mean girl’s relentless pursuit of social power is motivated by a fear of emotional vulnerability, we’re uncomfortably empathetic.

Internal motivation helps us find the universal humanity in even the most extraordinary circumstances. And here’s the best part:

You don’t have to decide which type of motivation is best. They can co-exist. 

Maybe your police protagonist needs to solve that murder to prove that they can do more than write speeding tickets. That would be external motivation.

But what deeper desire lies beneath that motivation? Maybe they need to prove to themselves that they have something bigger to offer the world. There’s the internal motivation.

Whether you give your character layers of motivation or opt to keep things simple, you need to start somewhere. Here are some character motivation examples to help you out. 

51 Character Motivation Examples

A person stands on a moody beach, watching the sunset.

Feel free to hijack anything that works for your story or use these ideas to spark your own. (You can also peruse this list of motivation tropes for even more inspiration.)

Intrinsic Character Motivation Examples

  1. Find empowerment after a break-up or professional failure
  2. Reinvent oneself
  3. Overcome addiction (This can also be considered external, as addiction can be a physiological challenge.)
  4. Grow up 
  5. Expand one’s mind and experiences
  6. Find self-love
  7. Build a home
  8. Find a community
  9. Pursue a calling
  10. Be useful to others
  11. Be an uplifting presence
  12. Make peace with physical or mental illness
  13. Forgive oneself
  14. Overcome grief
  15. Become independent
  16. Find one’s purpose
  17. Overcome fear
  18. Master a skill
  19. Be perfect
  20. Learn to trust
  21. Avoid vulnerability

Extrinsic Character Motivation Examples

  1. Get revenge
  2. Secure justice
  3. Survive a natural disaster
  4. Escape confinement
  5. Rescue someone in danger
  6. Secure rights
  7. Survive an illness
  8. Protect the innocent
  9. Gain political power
  10. Gain social power
  11. Inspire envy
  12. Impress a specific person or group of people
  13. Gain control over another person
  14. Start a family
  15. Find love
  16. Keep a secret
  17. Enhance a reputation
  18. Repay a debt
  19. Stick it to the Man
  20. Escape an abusive situation
  21. Start a revolution
  22. Achieve financial security
  23. Become ridiculously wealthy
  24. Live up to expectations
  25. Earn forgiveness
  26. Prove oneself to a loved one, a role model, or the world
  27. Recruit or convert followers/disciples
  28. Create chaos
  29. Protect the city/country/world from a serious threat
  30. Win

How to Write Realistic and Relatable Character Motivation 

An open journal sitting beside a potted plant and a coffee mug reading, "Go get 'em."

Still not sure which motivation makes the most sense for your character? Want a few more tips on how to design character motivations that resonate with readers?

Here are a few quick tips.

Let Motivation Evolve

A good story has a few pivots and reversals. Characters make new discoveries, face the consequences of poor decisions, find the primary suspect with a knife in their back, etc. Sometimes these events completely alter the characters’ priorities or perspective.

Take Legally Blonde for example. At the beginning of the movie, Elle is motivated by a desire to seal her romantic future. As her love interest proves to be the worst and she builds a connection with her client, Elle is more driven to protect the falsely accused. 

What’s beautiful about a well-executed motivation shift like this one is that it aligns with who the character is. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Elle is a genuinely caring person. What changes is her beliefs about who deserves her care and attention.

Consult the Pyramid

By “pyramid,” I mean Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This thing:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in pyramid form, with the categories of needs from bottom to top reading: "Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization."

This covers all the basic needs human beings share, with the most urgent and essential needs at the bottom and the “luxury” needs at the top.

As a writer, you know this hierarchy well. It’s hard to put creative fulfillment first when you’ve got to pay rent and feed your family.

The same is true for your characters. 

When you alter your character’s situation in a drastic way—introduce a bigger complication, plant a betrayal, whatever—consider if they’re presented with a new problem that bumps them farther down on the pyramid.

If their needs become more primal, their motivation should follow.

Connect the Ghost

Also known as “the Wound,” the Ghost is a traumatic past experience that explains your character’s worldview and emotional baggage. It should also inform your character’s motivation.

What happened to make your ticket-writing, murder-solving character so insecure about their place in the world? Why do they need professional validation? 

Make the Consequences Clear and Severe

Or make the rewards life-changing. Or both!

The entire point of human motivation is that we’re trying to either achieve something or avoid something, and that “something” feels like life or death to us.

Make sure your reader feels those life-or-death stakes, even if your character’s motivations come from the very top of Maslow’s pyramid.

This is where the Ghost comes in handy. Show the reader what happened to make your protagonist so determined to avoid romantic entanglements. Or drop some backstory to justify your villain’s need for power.

Dream Up Your Characters With Dabble

Hopefully this motivation thing is starting to feel a little less mysterious and a lot more accessible. Even if it doesn’t—or if you still feel intimidated by the whole process—my advice is to jump in. 

Start digging into your character’s personal history and inner life. Unlock their hidden desires, the fears they earned through their trauma… all that fun stuff. You’re most likely to find your way by doing it. Plus, you can always consult your community at the Story Craft Café for advice and feedback.

A word of warning, though: all your important characters need motivation, which means this process might get messy. Fortunately, the features in Dabble can help you stay organized. Story Notes are completely customizable so you can build character profiles your way.

Screenshot of a Dabble character profile for a character named Troy.

You can also use the Plot Grid to track your characters’ shifting motivation.

A screenshot of a Dabble Plot Grid tracking Simba's character motivation in The Lion King.

Not a Dabbler yet? Click here for a free fourteen-day trial. This gives you access to all of Dabble’s features, no credit card required.

How’s that for motivation?

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.