Why Does Character Motivation Matter if the Plot Slaps?
Why does character motivation matter? Does it matter?
When a writer asks this question, it usually means they just got some irritating feedback.
I know that feedback. You write a riveting scene in which your protagonist makes a bold decision, a gasp-worthy decision, a decision that changes the entire course of your novel. Then here comes your beta reader’s feedback.
“I just don’t believe she’d do that.
”What do they mean they “don’t believe” she’d do that? They just saw her do it. And aren’t the most interesting stories the ones where characters make surprising choices?
Yes. But you still have to give your character a reason to make a shocking move.
Character motivation matters. Motivation is the bridge between who your character was and who they become. It’s the force that creates conflict, gives depth to characters, and sparks emotion in the reader. If you want to write stories that rock, you have to know why your characters do what they do. You’re about learn:
- How character motivation influences your story.
- How to create multi-dimensional motivation.
- What happens when you skip motivation.
- How to apply motivation to your story.
Why Does Character Motivation Matter?
First, let’s clarify how your character’s motivation is different from their goal.
The goal is what your character wants. Motivation is why they want it.
A story about a teen wizard running around breaking a grown-up’s stuff might be entertaining, but it’s hard for us to care about the outcome. A story about a teen wizard who has to break stuff in order to save the world… that has us frantically turning pages.
Character motivation is the story.
Let’s break this down using The Lion King as an example.
Motivation Spawns Conflict
There is no story without conflict. No one wants to read a book about a hero who takes a journey without incident, slays a dragon without a fight, and makes it home in time for dinner.
But you know what else people don’t want to read? A book about people who are just jerks to each other for no reason. Motivation creates reason.
In The Lion King, Scar craves power. But his older, better-liked brother is king over everything. And now Scar has a brand-new nephew who is next in line for the throne.
This power-hungry uncle is out-ranked by a cub.
There it is. Something stands between a character and their deepest desire, and now they must act.
Motivation Reveals Humanity
Motivated by jealousy and his lust for power, Scar orchestrates the death of his own brother and convinces Simba it’s his fault. Simba fights back and claims his kingdom.
Just kidding. Simba runs away with the intention to never return to Pride Rock.
Yet, nobody is saying, “I don’t believe he would leave. He just sang an entire song about how he couldn’t wait to be king.” Why not?
Because we understand what changed. Simba wanted to be a total boss like his dad. Then he watched his dad get trampled to death, a trusted adult blamed him for it, and now he has a new motivator: shame.
Every human being over the age of three recognizes shame as a deeply vulnerable and profoundly powerful motivator. Shame swallows childhood dreams.
Other big motivators include fear, anxiety, security, and connection. Underneath any pursuit, there is an overwhelming need to be safe, to be seen, to be loved, to be in control, etc. When you can tap into those motivations, you can make your character feel real to your readers.
Motivation Justifies the Big Reversal
A great story contains big moves.
Villains repent. Best friends betray. Non-murdering types murder.
But none of these stunning moves properly stun if they don’t make sense to your reader.
Sometimes all it takes to motivate a reversal is one small moment. The hyenas turn on Scar in the end because they overhear him betraying them to a now-very-grown Simba.
Other times, the motivation for a change in direction must be deep-seated. Imagine if, after spending years fully committed to the hakuna matata lifestyle, all it took for Simba to confront his childhood trauma was getting yelled at by a hot lioness he used to know.
As hard as Nala rocks, the movie would probably lose us at that point.
The much more convincing storytelling decision is for Simba to be confronted by the spirit of his father, who basically says, “You’re my son and you’re a king, and I need you to stop lying around eating grubs.”
This is an effective motivator for two reasons. First, Mufasa is the only character in this entire story who can release Simba from his shame. Second, it brings us back to Simba’s original motivation: to be the kind of lion he would admire.
Motivation Inspires Emotional Connection
Emotional response is the entire goal of storytelling. Even when we say we want to “make people think,” we know we can’t get anybody to think until we’ve given them a reason to care. That’s why we communicate in stories instead of academic papers.
And how do we get readers to form an emotional connection with someone whose life and personality is nothing like their own?
Motivation is a universal language. We don’t know what it’s like to be animal royalty. But we do know what it means to be a child with a hero… to look at someone we admire and think, “When I become like them, I’ll be proud of who I am.”
What Happens When a Character Lacks Motivation?
Let’s go back to that original question. Does character motivation matter?
Can’t you just write a compelling plot? Won’t readers assume something is motivating your character?
Maybe. Even then, assumptions don’t help the reader connect with the story. Remember, fiction is an emotional experience, even for us intellectuals.
When you root character emotions and major plot points in clear motivations, the reader remains emotionally engaged. All they see is the story.
When there is no motivation to support the story, the reader sees you, the author. They see you trying to make them cry with emotional dialogue or shock them with the sudden shift. They see you trying (and failing) to toy with their emotions.
That’s not what you want. This is what you want:
How to Build Multi-Dimensional Character Motivation
Let’s go back to Simba and Mufasa. What makes these lions feel so human is not just the presence of motivation but the complexity of it.
When you’re writing a story, it’s not quite enough to create motivation for your characters. You need to make it messy. And how do you do that?
Right Motivation, Wrong Goal
As a cub, Simba is motivated by a deep longing to be like his dad. He connects this with the goal of one day becoming a super-powerful king with no problems. When Mufasa dies, Simba knows the “carefree king” thing is off the table, and he thinks this means he’ll never be like his dad.
Same Motivation, Conflicting Goals
Watch scenes of Mufasa parenting. You’ll see something every parent immediately recognizes. This guy is driven by his love for his son, but he’s constantly juggling two goals: creating space for his child’s innocent joy and preparing Simba for tough realities.
There are a couple reasons your character’s driving motivation might change over the course of their journey.
They might experience a trauma that shifts their mindset from “How do I find fulfillment?” to “How do I get out of this alive?” Or the opposite could happen: they realize that their survival mindset is keeping them from truly living.
They might also have some sort of moral awakening or develop a new relationship that changes their priorities.
Applying Character Motivation to Your Story
At this point, I think we’ve clearly established that character motivation does matter.
Now, how do you apply character motivation to your story without being all explainy about it?
- Use the Dabble Plot Grid to track where and why your character’s motivation shifts within their character arc. (See the image above for an example of how to do this.)
- Establish a backstory or write scenes that help readers connect with your character’s motivation. Don’t just tell us your protagonist feels indebted to their grandma. Show us the scene where Grandma pulls them from a burning car.
- Use dialogue to communicate motivation. Remember that most people don’t declare their motivations. Rather than having your character say, “I want to feel loved,” you can have them sigh while watching a rom-com and say, “That’s what life is all about.”
- Create a series of clarifying choices. If your anti-hero throws a friend under the bus to get a promotion, that’s one bad decision. If they have a pattern of sabotaging others to gain status, we begin to recognize behavior as a reflection of motivation.
- Give your character somebody to envy. Or aspire to. Somebody who embodies the way your character wants to see themselves or be seen by others.
The ultimate goal is to show how motivation manifests in ways we recognize from our own lives. This is how writers get us to that place where we’re watching a ghost-lion lecture his kid from a magical night-cloud and we’re thinking, “I wonder if my dad is proud of me.”
That’s what we’re all here for, after all. It’s fun to have our emotions played with.
As long as we don’t notice the strings.
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