When writing fictional characters, it’s important to know what motivates their actions. After all, story and plot are determined by how your characters act, and if they are going to act it’s best that they do it for something they care about, something they really desire. It also helps readers understand your characters so that they can relate to them or empathize with them more. The girl who wants true love, the hero who rids the town of a villain, the mother who finds a perfect bride for her bachelor son—all of these characters are motivated by something that determines their actions.
But how does a writer go about deciding a character’s motivations? Usually it comes with creating the character. If you know who your characters are, you probably know what already motivates them. But what if you don’t? What if you have a really strong or interesting character but you don’t know what makes him tick?
A great place to start is, of course, with your character. Usually, the best way to know what makes your character tick is to define who your character is. You probably already have an idea in mind, but take that idea even further. For instance, if your character is the neighborhood bully, ask yourself why the character is the way he is? What makes him a bully? What does he get out of bullying other people around? Perhaps, the character might be bullied himself and is taking his aggression out on others weaker than him. Or perhaps he is a sadist who gets his jollies out of making other people suffer.
You might also want to look at your character’s primary characteristics and personality or his philosophical beliefs on life. Is the character a hopeless romantic? Is she cynical? Is he a workaholic? A character’s beliefs on life can motivate how the character will behave and act in your story. A character, for instance, wants to pair two of her best friends in a relationship. Her primary motivation might be that she is a hopeless romantic who simply wants her friends to be happy. A character might rob banks in the dusty Midwest of the 1930s Depression and gives the money away to dirt poor farmers is perhaps motivated by his actions because he grew up dirt poor and watched the “system” send his father to an early grave. Robbing banks is his way of getting back at the system.
A back story for your characters is also a great way to find out what makes them tick. How did the character grow up? Was she poor? Was she rich? Did she grow up in a two- or one-parent home? Was she class valedictorian? Was she the popular girl in school? Did something tragic or traumatic happen to her in the past or did she grow up a relatively happy girl? While you don’t have to include everything about your character’s past in your story, knowing that past can help sharpen the questions you need to ask of your character to determine her motivation. For instance, if the character grew up rich, how did that affect her worldview? Did she grow up spoiled and coddled? Did she reject her parents’ attitudes about wealth or social class? Did she accept them? Knowing these questions can also give you a head start on the plot of your story. For instance, if your heiress rebels against her family’s wealth and social class, then it makes sense why she ends up robbing banks along with her bank robbing beau in Depression-era America.
It’s also important to know what your character wants. We are all motivated by our desires. They can be anything—love, money, peace, revenge, etc. Knowing what your character wants provides a good clue as to what motivates his actions. Your readers will also want to know what your character wants, especially if your character’s actions seem ambiguous. The character who wants to pair her favorite friends might be suffering from a lost love of her own and doesn’t want her friends to end up in the same fate as she. The Depression-era bank robbers might want different things, but are motivated by events that happened in their childhood. Perhaps, the bank robber wants to avenge his father’s death, while the heiress just wants to rebel against her conservative parents. Their wants are complex and are born out of their backgrounds and personalities, but offer readers not only a sense of what motivates their actions but also a sense of who these characters are, making them much more richly drawn and empathetic.