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.