Discovering Your Character’s Motivation

This morning I looked up a paragraph I’ve been thinking about for a few days. It’s from the novel I’m in the process of writing. In the paragraph the narrator is following a character named “Sally” or “Sal” for short. “Sal” is reflecting on the fact she’s now married and how she once rejected the idea of marriage, including the notion of actual love. She once played a character who in many ways was the opposite of her when it came to the idea of love. As “Sal” is reflecting, the narrator’s voice reveals “Sal’s” true motivation: “There was truth to the words she’d spoken. Love is there if you want it. But you had to want it. And until you did, it followed you everywhere, waiting for you to realize it was love that made anything possible.”

What Does Your Character Want?

In the MBA world, the concept of “motivation” stems from figuring out how to get your employees to implement tasks, functions and strategies that end up benefiting the entire organization. I won’t bore you with the countless theories – I’ve read over them too many times. I’ve seen even the most revered theories fail with the best of intentions when you’re trying to implement them within less than ideal circumstances. You can Google them or pick up a book on organizational behavior theory. But, in the MFA world “motivation” is a condensed label for “what does your character want.” Regardless of discipline, it’s the same idea. Only in one scenario you’re using psychology to subtly manipulate live humans in unpredictable environments and in the other you’re manipulating the imaginary.

In the same novel I’m writing, there’s another character named “Nancy” who is also driven by love, but she observes love is elusive. It’s a feeling held wrapped inside, a something that keeps slipping through her fingers because it’s either the wrong time, the wrong person, or she’s simply not interested in the person who loves her back. Unlike “Sal,” “Nancy” has always wanted love, but has been unable to find what she believes it to be.


Motivation is the key to why we do things, why we act or don’t act. Sometimes we pause, freeze or lose our words because we’re trying to keep ourselves safe. Something in our environment triggers a portion of our subconscious past and we lose temporary control to shield ourselves from perceived potential harm. Or something doesn’t match up and we’re scared to move forward because our senses and our intuition are receiving mixed, confusing signals. It’s hard to truly determine what motivates a person unless you ask. And that’s assuming you’ve built the type of relationship and environment with this person where he or she feels completely comfortable being honest. If you’ve done something to erode trust or instill fear, you can’t expect honesty. Characters, on the other hand, will always be completely honest with you. All you have to do is listen.

Journeys, Discoveries, Changes

When characters (like the real humans they’re based on) embark on journeys, they end up changing because what they originally wanted leads to wanting something else. The best stories show characters switching places or roles with each other, as their individual motivations are now flipped to what the other person originally wanted or needed. Even when someone is empty or a shell of a person, there’s a want or a need to erase the feelings of emptiness. Some of us drink and smoke too much, others go on eating binges or punish ourselves by working too hard, exercising too much, avoiding life and human contact, crying out for attention with repeated arguments, threats and attempts at ending our own lives.

Self-destruction comes in many forms, but it boils down to wanting to be seen and heard for who we really are. Sometimes we don’t know who that is and that’s okay. Discovery is a process that can’t continue if you stop the journey you came here for. My father taught me that – the one whose DNA matches mine. He committed suicide when I was six, almost seven. I always had the hope that it wasn’t true. Since they never found his body, maybe he was still out there somewhere, searching for me or waiting for me to find him again; even though it wasn’t safe for me to be alone with him, or see him, or talk to him. So my entire life, my motivation, my need, my want has been to keep myself safe. I’m not sure that’s changed much, but then again I’m not at the end of my journey yet. I suppose there’s still hope.

As for “Sal” and “Nancy,” the actions they take in my place (for now) will reveal what else there is I need to see.


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A human rediscovering and reinventing her authentic voice. Copywriter, editor, storyteller/ "imaginationist." I'm an MFA/MBA, because I can never choose.

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