Character motivation is possibly the most important aspect of narrative writing. Without character motivation, there’s no plot. And while narrative art without plot does exist (just ask Dziga Vertov or Godfrey Reggio) most books, films, tv shows, stage productions, and other things that we tend to associate with the art of language (as opposed to visual or musical art) has some kind of plot. And the most basic of these plots? Character wants something, has to overcome obstacles to get it, and either succeeds or fails. Luke Skywalker wants an adventure, he leaves the planet, blows up a Death Star, and becomes a hero. Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of the Covenant, he contacts an old girlfriend, flies to Egypt, and the Nazi’s faces melt. Prince Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s murder, he grapples with his mental illness, distances himself from his social circle, and then kills King Claudius, but dies in the process.
Character motivations can change over the course of a story, usually as a “be careful what you wish for” kind of thing. You also can have unmotivated characters that are notable in their lack of motivation. But most plot consists of the motivation of the protagonist coming directly into conflict with the motivation of the antagonist, or the motivation of society, or the motivation of the universe itself sometimes. Figuring out your protagonist’s motivation is entangled in the plot and conflict of the story.
I’m going to look at a few different stories with varying complexity in terms of motivations and how they work, because unlike my other writing advice, figuring out your own character’s motivation is individual to your character and story. You can list a million different stories that have a million different characters with a million different motivations. I’m looking at these stories, but there are plenty more examples to look at if you’re having trouble.
That said, here are some examples.
Alexander Hamilton’s motivation in Hamilton stays the same throughout the show– he wants to make his mark on history and rise above his humble origins. This ends up coming into conflict with everyone from Aaron Burr, to Eliza Hamilton, to Thomas Jefferson, to King George III. When you have simple motivations, one way to keep the story interesting is to put it in conflict with several characters and watch how they interact. The rivalry between Hamilton and Burr is built up over the length of the show as it sets up the final, fatal duel– which is the whole point of it. However, Thomas Jefferson is only introduced in Act Two (the role is double-cast with the Marquis de Lafayette) and thus his conflict with Hamilton has to be established quickly as he is a wholly antagonistic force. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the one in the bright blue blazer and jeans) does this by making Jefferson and Hamilton’s first real interaction a rap battle.
(Yeah, there are going to be more musicals than usual in this post, mostly because the “I Want” song trope makes it so easy to identify, learn more about that here.)
Another way to make simple motivations interesting is to have a lot of them. The Wizard of Oz has very clear-cut motivations– Dorothy wants to go home,
Fiyero the Scarecrow wants a brain, Boq the Tin Man wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage. As more and more characters build up what the Wizard can do, we believe more and more that the Wizard can in fact give them everything they want, or at the very least, the more we want the Wizard to be able to give them what they want. This makes the twist at the end that the Wizard is actually a huckster from Omaha impactful, and his gifts to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion more meaningful– like Dorothy, they had the power to get what they want with them all along, they just needed someone to show it to them.
I mentioned Hamlet in the beginning, but Hamlet’s motivation does evolve over the course of the play. Hamlet learns at the end of Act One that his father was murdered by his uncle, King Claudius. The problem is that Hamlet is somewhere between 16 and 25 (never mind the age of the actor) and isn’t ready to commit to his girlfriend, much less regicide. He spends much of Acts Two and Three observing the rest of the palace, and seems unlikely to do anything. His motivation is made complex by his situation– he wants to avenge his father, but the Christian ideology of the society he is in does not approve of revenge. This is put into direct contrast with the Classical (Roman) eras, and especially stories from the Classical eras. Odysseus killing Penelope’s suitors, Diana transforming Actaeon into a stag so his dogs would kill him, the entire concept of Tartarus. Hamlet’s motivation, “find a way to avenge my father without literally damning my immortal soul to hell”, changes to just “kill Claudius” during his exile to England as he sees the Norwegian army marching on Denmark (and after he does a warm-up murder on Polonius).
In Wreck-It-Ralph, Ralph is a Donkey Kong-esque villain from an old arcade game. However, he’s tired of being the villain and wants to be the hero for once. Most of the movie is him interacting with Vanellope because she can get him the medal that proves that he’s a hero. His motivations eventually shift from wanting to be a hero to wanting to protect Vanellope. It’s a common enough story arc– it’s in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Annie, and even Avatar to an extent– but what Wreck-It-Ralph does that’s interesting is reject the original motivation all together. We understand why Ralph wants to be a hero, we are rooting for him to get the medal, and we follow all of his decisions, which reflect his changing motivations. What makes this change impactful is that despite the fact that he gave up being a hero, he still is able to be happy and gains the respect of his coworkers.
It’s not that Arthur Dent has no motivations– he wants his house to stay up, he wants a cup of tea, etc.– but as a protagonist, he doesn’t do as much acting as he does reacting. This is actually pretty common in every-man comedy. Think Jim Halpert from The Office, or Tim Canterbury from… well, The Office, but the British version. The “normal” character thrust into fantastic or absurd situations and reacting to them in the way that the writer(s) presume a normal person would react to such things. In other words, the Martin Freeman types. This doesn’t always work. Mark Brendanawicz from the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation was intended to be this kind of character, but ultimately didn’t gel in the same way that the rest of the cast did.
I love Belle, I do. Beauty and the Beast is a fantastic film, Belle was my Princess growing up, I’ve watched it over a million times at least. But getting locked in a castle by a monster isn’t an ‘adventure’, it’s a horror film. Belle’s big ‘want’ at the beginning of the film, to live a life like in one of her books, is never really brought up again. Certainly her love for her father is what leads her to the castle and the plot, but unlike similar protagonists of that period, that’s not what she wants. Compare her to Mulan, who also puts herself into a dangerous situation to save her father, but in a way that is more directly tied to the self-actualization that she wanted in “Reflection”. Not that Belle is a weak character, but she is far more static than most of the other Disney Renaissance protagonists and her motivations are one of the weak points of the film.
Okay, hear me out.
Dead Man’s Chest is easily the third best film in the Pirates franchise (Curse of the Black Pearl being the best, and I just like At World’s End the most), but it is also basically a primer for writers to learn how to put motivations into conflict with each other. Jack wants to get out of his debt to Davy Jones. Jones wants either Jack’s soul, or 100 other souls in exchange. Will wants to get Elizabeth out of jail and, later, free his father from Jones’ crew. Elizabeth wants to keep Will (and herself) out of jail and makes a bargain with Lord Cutler Beckett, who wants the compass that doesn’t point North. Later, Elizabeth is convinced by Jack she wants the titular chest that contains Jones’ heart, as it will free Will from Jones’ crew. Norrington wants to regain his honor, position, and dignity. The movie is very clear as to everyone’s motivations and it puts people into interesting conflicts– including that incredible three-way sword fight near the end of the film. Is it the best film in the world? No, like I said, it’s not even the best film in the franchise, but the way it handles the character-driven dramatic arcs are a good way to start looking for motivational conflict.
Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what to write. Your characters have their own motivations and they will interact in the ways that you have them do that– but you should be thinking about them in every scene because it influences every interaction you write, and it also influences how characters react to the outcome of a situation. If you’re having trouble with moving the plot forward, perhaps reexamine your character motivations, as they might not be strong enough or complex enough to give the story the momentum you need to get to the next plot point. Or, conversely, the plot is moving too quickly and you need to put more obstacles between your character and what they want. Basic stuff, I know, but character motivations are the heart of narrative fiction. You should take your story’s pulse every once in a while, at least.
What are some of your favorite ‘I Want’ songs? What are some interesting motivations that I left out? Let me know in the comments! Also like if you can, and subscribe so that you don’t miss any new posts!