Following the game I posted earlier this month regarding motivations, I thought it would be a great idea to make an actual post which will go deeper into what consists of Character Motivation. This is something I have had a lot of practice (and fun) with while creating various Non-Player-Characters for the virtual studio Missing Worlds Media.
Motivation is the reason behind why people act the way they do. It can be a basic need or desire, which pushes the character to adopt a goal-oriented behavior, in order to fulfill or acquire aforementioned aspirations.
Stories are about people, and great stories require believable characters. Motivation helps make the characters plausible by giving them purpose, defining their needs, explaining their actions and making them seem three dimensional. In this sense, we can understand why motivation is an integral part of good storytelling; because it is linked to all the other elements of characterization. When creating motivations for main characters, you must ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it significant? How important is this to the character and the audience, and how far would the character go to obtain it.
- Is it credible? How believable is this to the character and the audience, and how much would the character really want/need to obtain it.
- Is it instinctual? How intuitive is it to the character and the audience, and how would the character feel without it.
We must not forget, characters are also the tools the writer uses to make the plot move forward. Therefore we can see how a character’s personal motives will play a significant part on their role in the story; it explains the “why” and “how” said character will act or make decisions. For example, a character who is incredibly greedy, would not commit an act of generosity out of the kindness of his heart, or a character that is narcissistic would not suddenly commit an act of altruism for no apparent reason. In order for the audience to believe the story, the character's motives must be credible and align with the story’s goal or purpose.
Motivation is rooted in either a basic need or self-fulfilling desire; you do something because you need it, or because you want it. The actions of a character are dictated by their needs and desires. Say there is a cookie on the counter, will your character eat it? If he likes to eat cookies, then yes, because eating something sweet is a self-fulfilling desire. What if the cookie has nuts, then maybe your character will leave it there because he is allergic, therefore meeting his need for taking care of himself (he doesn’t want to be sick). Take this scenario even further; what if your character was allergic to nuts, but on the verge of starvation, he would then eat the cookie regardless, because now it is a question of self preservation.
Of course, normally priority would be given to needs, such as breathing or eating, over desires, such as wealth or influence. This is not set in stone however, giving writers the option to play around with their actors motives in order to surprise the audience. For a brief description and a better understanding of what motivates people, see the following graphic.
For further ideas on various motives and how they can influence your character, see the following list of examples:
- Self-Preservation: the basic need of protecting oneself from harm or death.
- Revenge: the spiteful desire of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.
- Relationships: the social need of being connected with others, either by blood or by marriage, and participating in social interaction.
- Greed: the selfish desire for something, especially wealth, belongings, or power.
- Fear: the instinctual need to be afraid, mindful of one's surroundings, to want to avoid dangerous, painful, or threatening situations. Often linked to self-preservation.
- Hate: the inner desire to express one’s intense or passionate dislike.
- Responsibility: the strong desire to meet up to one’s accountability, to meet up to their surroundings expectations of them.
- Prestige: the self-fulfilling desire to receive widespread respect and admiration for oneself.
Finally, an important point to remember is a character’s motivation is not static and can evolve over time. The actors motivation is a delicate equilibrium which is built, layer by layer, by the actions, conversations, considerations and discoveries they undergo during the course of a story.
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it was helpful to you in some way. Until next time.