50+ Character Motivation Tropes and How to Make Them Your Own
When you hear the word “trope,” you might be worried about venturing into cookie-cutter territory. And us authors are artists, right? We want to be creative and original.
But hear me out: tropes aren’t meant to be lazy, copy-and-paste elements to shove into your story.
No, instead they are more like elements your readers are familiar with that you can use as a foundation for your creative, original story.
Tropes are everywhere, and “everywhere” includes the motivations driving your characters towards their goals. These familiar motivations let readers instantly connect with what’s driving your characters, even if they don’t know their full backstory or all the fine details.
If used properly, motivation tropes can let you focus on character development and your plot rather than excessive exposition that just slows your story down. But, if used improperly, they can seem cheap or just downright bad.
That’s why we’re going to talk about:
- Motivation tropes to avoid
- Some examples of great motivation tropes
- How to transform common motivation tropes for your story
And if all that doesn’t make you want to read further, I don’t know what will.
Motivation Tropes to Avoid
Up first, we want to talk about some motivation tropes that you absolutely don’t want to use. These range from the cliché to the downright offensive.
Some of the tropes you’re about to see can work in certain situations, but they might take a little extra work to make them something people will want to read.
Without further ado, here are the motivation tropes you should avoid.
Carbon copies - This should go without saying, but you absolutely should not just be ripping off someone’s work and shoving it into your own story. You can be inspired by a story you see or use a character as a starting point—which we’ll discuss later in this article—but plagiarism is never okay.
Harmful stereotypes - This is especially true when writing about people of other cultures, ethnicities, abilities, or experiences. It’s not okay for someone’s motivation to be “I want to fix my disability and get out of this wheelchair.” Unless you consider using that as a teaching moment where they accept their own unique abilities when they realize how flawed their motivation is during their arc. Even then, consider hiring a sensitivity reader to make sure you aren’t alienating or hurting your readers.
Super nasty evil villains who are super nasty - This one was intentionally wordy to drive home a point. Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil don’t fly anymore. This is almost a lack of motivation more than motivation, and modern readers demand more substance from the characters they read about.
The stoic hero - On the flip side, someone whose actions are driven by an unflinching sense of moral goodness can make for a dry read. If your Superman is just strong, invincible, and saves the world just because, that’s not motivation. Aim for something more dynamic, include moral dilemmas, and show your readers why they’re the stoic hero you’ve made them into.
These don’t encompass all the no-no motivations, but I think most can come down to common sense. If it’s a cliché, offensive, exploitative, or uninspired, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
And that’s exactly where we’re headed.
50+ Examples of Motivation Tropes
Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Here’s a pretty long list of motivation tropes you can use to inspire your characters. You can use this list for your own starting point or see what sticks out for you to use in our next section.
- Acknowledgement: The only thing that matters is the approval or notice of someone a character views as important.
- Amusement: A character does everything for the fun of it.
- Apathy: Their motivation is to avoid doing anything outside of their norm and is usually pressed to change by outside forces.
- Babysitter: Steve from Stranger Things. This character is a mother hen, someone who will do anything to protect the ones they care about.
- Basic Needs: Whether it be money, food, housing, security, or anything else we need to survive, a character is driven to desperation to meet those needs.
- Beauty: A character needs to be seen as beautiful, no matter what it takes.
- Bonds: Friendship, love, and companionship are lacking in a character’s life, and they’re sick of being lonely.
- Boredom: The current status quo is boring and a character wants to shake their situation up.
- Changing Community: A big company is moving in to permanently change a community, or new government policies are affecting community members negatively.
- Curse the Gods: A character views their troubles as the fault of a higher power and wants to get some payback.
- Destiny: A prophecy is to be fulfilled—or stopped.
- Dream Job: A character wants a position or job more than anything else in the world.
- Family Name: The legacy and appearance of the family must be upheld at all costs.
- Fear: An overwhelming terror or phobia pushes a character to extremes.
- For the Children: The character wants to create a better circumstance or world for their children or the next generation.
- For the Greater Good: No matter what the cost, a character will do anything to achieve their vision of a better world for all.
- Freedom: A character yearns for a life free from whatever binds them.
- Glory: Everything your character does is to look cool, gain fame, or impress others.
- Great Reset: To a character, the world is beyond saving and needs to be wiped clean to get a second chance.
- Happiness: A character is seeking happiness for themselves or others.
- Hidden Agenda: We know something is driving the character forward, we just don’t know what it is yet (but we must, eventually).
- Honor-bound: A sense of honor drives everything a character does, even to a fault.
- Hurt in the Past: Past harm has made a character desperate not to face the same pain again.
- I Just Want to be Normal: A character is sick of being exceptional and just wants a normal life.
- I Just Want to be Special: A character is sick of being normal and knows they can be exceptional.
- Indebted: Crippling debt is stopping the character from reaching their potential, and they want to get rid of it.
- I’ll Find You: "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."
- It’s Personal: An event hit too close to home for a character, and now they use it as fuel for their goal.
- Jealousy: After seeing what someone else has, a character wants that for themselves.
- Justice: It’s not about getting even, it’s about letting justice prevail.
- Love: A character only wants to be loved or share love with others.
- Loyalty: A character is indebted to someone to the point they will do anything for them.
- MacGuffin: A literary device used when every character is motivated by something, despite its irrelevance or unimportance.
- Money: A character is obsessed with wealth and will do anything to acquire more.
- New Year’s Resolution: Though it doesn’t have to be at New Year’s, a character makes an important resolution that guides their future actions.
- Or Else: A threat or consequence will come to pass if the character doesn’t do something they don’t want to.
- Past Mistake: Something haunts the character and they’re trying to atone for it.
- Past Trauma: A terrible event in the character’s past drives them towards or away from their goals.
- Patriotism: There’s a threat to the character’s nation that needs defending against.
- Power at Any Cost: After getting a taste of power, a character is insatiable for more and will do anything to get it.
- Protector: Through some event or promise, the character must protect someone or something.
- Prove Themself: Whether to a rival, a disapproving parent, or some organization, a character feels like they need external validation.
- Retirement: A character is working towards their ultimate goal so they can finally rest once they’ve accomplished it.
- Righting a Wrong: A character sees an injustice (according to their moral code) and must correct it.
- Science: The character’s sole purpose is to find some scientific discovery or invention.
- Slighted: A character was insulted and now wants to say “I’ll show you!”
- Searching for Purpose: A character desperately seeks their own purpose in life.
- Soulmate: Everything a character does is for their partner, even if it harms themselves.
- Strength: An event drives a character to become stronger to achieve their goal (cue training montage).
- Survivor’s Guilt: After surviving when others died, a character will do anything to stop others around them from dying.
- There’s No Place Like Home: A character will do anything to get back home.
- Thrillseeker: Danger is the only thing that gives a character their high, so they throw themselves at it whenever possible.
- Vengeance: A character wants to right a wrong done to them.
- Virtues: A character holds a specific moral code that drives all their actions—just make sure to give them a good backstory for this and test them on it.
How to Reinvent Common Motivation Tropes
I just know your mind is racing after going through that list, so let’s harness all those creative juices and come up with motivation for your characters.
If you’re wondering if a trope needs reinventing, the answer is likely yes. Not a complete overhaul, but maybe a touch of makeup or a little spritz to wake it up.
That’s because tropes have all been done before. Just looking at the list above, you could probably name at least a few stories or characters that fall under each suggestion. But all those characters were unique in their own way, so yours can be, too.
Here are three ways you can put your own spin on common motivation tropes.
Turn it on its head - Take any of those tropes and subvert them. A character wants to get back home, but they realize home is abusive. A scientist discovers magic and realizes their entire life has been for nothing. Make the expected unexpected.
Combine multiple tropes - Get real juicy and smash two or more of those tropes together. Bonus points if you make two conflicting tropes feel real in a single character. How can an honor-bound knight serve a lord whose laws led to the deaths of thousands? Internal conflict is crucial to building great characters.
Add at least two twists - Play a game of What If? with one of the tropes. Then do it again. The goal here is to get at least two degrees of separation from the original trope—only one twist and you risk writing something we’ve all read before. Sure, a prophecy needs to be fulfilled, but the Chosen One is dead and it turns out the villain was our hero’s love interest the whole time. What does their motivation look like when their destiny seems ruined and they’re in love with the enemy?
What Will Your Character’s Motivation Be?
Now it’s time for you to go forth and conquer, literary soldier. You have everything you need to give your characters the perfect motivations for your future bestseller.
Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot more to writing a book than character motivation. In fact, that’s just one piece of the puzzle that is writing a novel.
But Dabble’s got your back.
Not only do we have a totally free e-book to get you from idea to first draft (which you can get by clicking here), but we also have more totally free resources over at DabbleU for all your writing needs. Since you’re in the character mood, might I suggest:
- The best character template ever
- Our complete guide to creating characters
- 101 character goals
- A metric ton of character ideas you can use with this template
- 65 character development questions
- 20 original character interview questions
- A downloadable character profile
And when you’re ready to bring your characters and their motivations to life in your story, do it with Dabble. You can try all our premium features for free, no credit card required, for fourteen days by clicking here.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.