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Blame it on Their Parents and Other Ways to Explain Why Our Characters Do What They Do

By: Christie Craig

Motivation in a Nutshell

To put it simply, motivation is driven by two things: The need to avoid pain and the desire for pleasure. One, and sometimes both, of these factors will be at the core of your characters’ motivations. The power of motivation comes from the stimulus behind the motivation. In other words, the event or reason why your character is the way he or she is. It is crucial that you and the reader understand why and how your characters came to view some things as overwhelmingly painful and others as seductively pleasurable.

Motivation will be behind your characters’ fears, flaws, internal conflicts, actions, and goals. In a lot of cases, there will be one core stimulus that drives all the facets of your character’s personality. Your character’s flaws may go hand in hand with his internal conflict. His fears may simply be the flipside of his accomplishing his goals. His actions are simply choices he makes to avoid his fears as he sets out to attain his goals.

Character Motivations

The most important question to ask your characters is “Why?” Why do they do what they do? Why do they want what they want? Why do they fear what they fear? Generally, the answer to the “why” questions will lead you to your character’s motivation. In real life, sometimes we don’t always understand why we do things. Sometimes in our books, the “why” may not be clear to the characters, but it definitely needs to be clear to the reader. The reason for this is simple. It is human nature to want to understand what motivates people. If a reader can’t understand the reason your characters are reacting and acting in certain ways, they may not believe in them.

Motivation Leads to Caring

When an action is good, understanding the “why” behind the action increases the reader’s anticipation of seeing the character achieve his goal.

Motivation Leads to Understanding

When a character’s actions or emotions are somewhat misguided, hard to grasp, or lean toward unethical (lying, breaking a law, drinking too much, being a workaholic, fear of biscuits) motivation becomes even more important.

Below are some common traits and situations that are considered hero/heroine worthy.

  • A character who is an underdog, who has a handicap but refuses to give up
  • A character who is willing to admit they made a mistake and sets out to make amends
  • A character who is hurting, but remains strong for others
  • A character who is kind to the underdog, small children, elderly people, or animals
  • A character who is self-sacrificing
  • A character who is able to laugh at their own mistakes
  • A character who is levelheaded
  • A character who is making a mistake, but for all the right reasons
  • A strong, silent type who means well but is unable to express it
  • A character who takes risks but is willing to pay the price
  • A character who has depth, layers, and secrets
  • A character who is able to forgive

Where to Find the Motivation

If you are having a hard time finding your character’s motivation, try to remember that most motivation will be found in your character’s past. If your character is afraid to love, ask what childhood drama, or relationship mishap, could have instilled such behavior. If your character can’t say no, what happened in their lives to make them afraid to disappoint others? If a character is afraid of water, did she almost drown as a child, or did she have a sister who drowned? Generally, all the answers to the “why” questions, will be found in your character’s backgrounds.

When brainstorming characters’ motivations, consider this: A lot of people, real or imagined, attain their imperfections one of two ways: by making the same mistakes as their parents, or by making opposite mistakes in an overzealous attempt to not be like their parents.

Christie’s Two to Three Memory Motivation/Characterization Technique

Choose two traumatic/character forming memories from a character’s past to divulge to the reader what defines, gives empathy, and explains your character’s internal conflict and their motivations to overcome them. Generally one is from the character’s childhood and probably has to do with their parents. The other, also generally traumatic, is from adulthood. It’s relationship-related and most of the time is a result of the childhood memory. Together these two memories generally create the romantic internal conflict, they help define who the character is and why they act the way they act, and will in a lot of cases help define the plot, goals, and flaws.

Abandoned as a child by his mother, Jason refuses to love anyone until, as an older teen, he discovers his foster mother needs him.

1) How would these two memories have shaped him emotionally and how would that have affected his ability to have relationships with other people?
2) What do you possibly see as Jason’s flaws?
3) What do you see as Jason’s attributes?
4) What kind of a career do you possibly see his background leading him into?
5) What kind of heroine should be written to create the most conflict?

Jason becomes an adult who thinks it’s okay to care about people as long as they need him more than he loves them. His flaws are his fear of commitment if he’s not needed. His attributes is he is great and always eager to help others. He becomes a cop so he can become hero to many and therefore feel loved. He’s paired with a heroine whose father died suddenly when she was young. After having to be the strong one after seeing her mother emotionally crumble, she’s determined to prove that she can take care of herself. DIVORCED, DESPERATE AND DATING (Dorchester, December, 2008.)

Raised by overachievers, Katie struggles to be perfect. When her entire family is killed in an automobile accident she finds the perfect fiancé, to have the perfect life with, so she can replace the perfect family she just lost. But what happens with she suddenly realizes she doesn’t love the perfect man and he doesn’t love her, and suddenly another man who is oh-so not perfect, enters her life? WEDDING CAN BE MURDER (Dorchester, May 26, 08)