The Importance of Understanding Character Motivations

Character motivations don’t receive enough attention sometimes, so I thought I’d talk about that today.

Think of any story – whether short story or novel – as a spoked wheel. Virtually all the major elements of the story lead back to a hub. And the hub is character motivation.

Character motivation yields:

  • Plot
  • Dialogue
  • Character interactions
  • Climaxes (Major and Minor)
  • Story Tension
  • Suspense

Some of these elements keep a reader engaged, while others yield a believable payoff. Readers have a feel for realistic character motivations. When a climax or revelation or plot element rings false, readers notice and the story loses credibility.

Writers can craft full character backgrounds or simply create characters on the fly. The approach doesn’t matter. What matters is that a writer absolutely has to understand the motivations behind each of their characters and ensure the motivations feel believable (and not shoe-horned in just to make a plot point) and remain consistent or at least evolve in a credible manner. There’s nothing wrong if a character’s motivations shift – as long as the reasons behind the shift are plausible – and not the writer’s clumsy attempt to work around poor plotting.

Plot is derived from characters and their motivations. Without characters wanting to do certain things and to have certain outcomes, there is no plot.

So when a writer becomes stuck, wondering where their plot is leading to next, it may be  the writer only needs to know the characters better and ensure that the characters really are living on the page and acting out their story – rather than being moved about like puppets.

This doesn’t mean a writer can’t begin with a plot outline and select character types to bring about the result. If a plot outline calls for a mole deep inside the inner workings of an intelligence organization, the writer has to fulfill the promise of that plot by bringing to life a character who breathes and whose actions (and betrayals) will feel authentic. Otherwise, it’s just a hackneyed plot with dull and lifeless and utterly not-believable characters.

When a writer understands the characters, the characters will interact and converse in a manner that makes each of them unique to a reader. Their conversations will mean something and not just be space-filler. A lot of stories are full of conversations that are about as interesting and illuminating as listening to the person in the grocery store aisle next to you talking on their phone while selecting a can of peas.

Good dialogue derived from motivations is interesting, necessary, distinct as to the speakers, and often quite memorable.

When characters come to life and their motivations feel real, they bring nuance and depth to the story. They bring about mini-climaxes that lead to bigger ones, and they lead the plot rather than the plot leading them.

For a visual of the last – picture the movements of a soccer match (football in deference to those in much of the rest of the world) with the players’ movements ranging all over in patterns that could never be predicted – although they definitely have a purpose we can discern.

And then picture some mice moving through a maze that a research scientist has devised.

Soccer (football) games are dynamic. Mazes are boring (*). And I suspect if the mice didn’t have a reward waiting for them at the end of the maze, they wouldn’t bother. A story should not feel like a maze with characters just moving between fixed walls. That kind of thing is transparent and the characters don’t feel like they’re pushing things forward on their own. They feel like mice plopped down into the writer’s plot, and the reader is staring down from above predicting where the character is going next.

* (Note: Leeds Castle Maze is probably sort of fun although the people really do look like mice. And the really neat thing is actually the underground Grotto in the middle.)

Character motivations do not need to always be apparent to a reader. The elements of tension and suspense depend on readers guessing around motivations and their possible outcomes. Readers need enough clues to feel the tension and suspense, but it’s a careful balance for the writer not to reveal too much, but instead, only enough.

Still, the writer can’t just dump a surprise on the reader at the end. If a character has been acting a certain way throughout a story and the big reveal is a motivation that previously hadn’t been hinted at and doesn’t feel believable in its revelation, the reader will have a sneaking suspicion a lazy writer inserted this just because the writer didn’t have a feel for their own character.

Even with a good feel for their character motivations, the writer will still need a good ear for dialogue, not rely upon deus ex machina plot interventions, and avoid other storytelling follies.

But understanding motivations will position and shape a story much more easily and naturally than forcefully ramming down pieces of plastic like a simulated Habitrail Home for the characters to run through.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Understanding Character Motivations

  1. You make some really sound observations here. One of the things that drives me bonkers as a reader is watching a character morph into something and someone else for the single, and always obvious reason, that the author needs the plot to go a certain way or a certain hole needs to be filled in the story. Done with skill then it adds new layers and nuances to the story – in fact how and, most importantly, why they change becomes the story. Done badly it leaves me with the question, “Why am I reading this?”

  2. Wonderfully written there Matthew, to the point, some cracking observations that I wouldn’t have thought of and it works wonderfully to back the whole thing up. I read a post last week that dealt with self editing the characters and said that why should you on a first draft as you can lose the tale by cutting back on them.

    You’ve backed my point more eloquently than I did.

  3. Understanding your characters is the key to a successful, engaging story. Readers will forgive lots of writer faults, if they love the characters. Great post, Matthew.

  4. It doesn’t get any simpler than the way you said it Matthew. Thank you for clarifying the importance of character motivations as it has helped me dramatically when either critiquing other’s work or simply watching it, and also when I’m trying my hand at my own. 🙂

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