You have Character A and Character B. You have them in Place at Time. What you don’t have is your plot. You turn to the tried-and-true method: giving your characters a goal.
The idea behind pointing your characters towards a goal is to give them a motivation. Character motivation is the reason a character does what they do in a story. This is an intrinsic need that your character has to meet. They’re also supposed to be a large part of the reason your character wants to accomplish something. Unfortunately, when trying to figure out what characters are trying to do, things get unreasonably murky between their motives and their goals.
Motivations are goals. Goals however, are not motivations. Motives create goals. Goals do not create motives.
It’s a simple point, but one that often gets lost in translation. If you search for character motivations, one of the top results is often a list of things, and inevitably this list contains goals that aren’t motivations. It might have suggested motivations to help you drive those goals, but it’s important to understand that what their goals are not the same as their motivations. Let’s break down a few of the more common ones.
- Get Revenge
Although a common plot point, revenge itself is rarely a solid motivator. The entire point of this goal hinges on them having somehow been wronged previously. The actual act that wronged them contains the clue to their motivation: What about that act so greatly threatened their needs?
- Survive a Breakup or Other Loss
This one starts to get a little closer. Loss of loved one in itself can be a great threat to their emotional needs. This goal however, poses a couple of problems, starting with the fact that they have to lose someone in order to have any motivation at all. What about this specific relationship poses such a great threat to them? Secondly, this goal also runs alongside harmful tropes such as Kill the Gays and Refrigerator Wife.
- Get their Love Interest
Unlike the above survival of a lost relationship, this goal focuses on building a relationship. Yet, it retains the need to question it further: why is this specific relationship so important? What need does it fill for your character?
- Win a Competition
There are many reasons to want to win a competition: prize money, notoriety, perhaps it even goes towards gaining the attention from the love interest. On the surface, this looks like a perfect motivator for a plot. Competition indicates someone has to lose and no one likes losing, ergo it adds instant conflict. The problem is, the competition itself isn’t necessarily a threat to a need. What would winning do for your character that nothing else would?
- Find Someone or Something
Unless your character is a detective or you’re writing a mystery, a goal this vague doesn’t work for you or your characters. Although you can get specific—i.e. find the missing princess—this particular goal doesn’t provide solid stakes without being very specific about what happens if the character fails. In other words: you have to build up a motivation for your character’s motivational goal. In this case, you may want to ask why your character has to find this person and why no one else can do so.
- Kill Someone
Again, a vague goal does no one any favors, and this one ultimately ends up leading you to other goals as you dig into it. What’s motivating them to want to kill that one person? Revenge for a loved one’s murder? And don’t they have to first find the person they want to kill? This is a prime example of when goals aren’t motivations. Killing another character can certainly be a goal, but without asking a lot more questions, there’s no substance and no motivation to push your plot forward.
- Gain Power
This is yet another vague goal posing as a motivation. Power for the sake of power ends up looking a lot like evil for the sake of evil. In other words, your character feels flat and underdeveloped. Start asking questions like why they’re the best choice for the power they seek and what that power provides for them that nothing else can.
- Get a New Job
Unlike some of the other pseudo-motivations on this list, getting a new job actually has plenty of avenues to explore for motivations. There are many reasons someone might be looking for a new job. In this case, you need to ask what about their current situation necessitates a new job. How much of a threat does not having a job at all pose to them? What need is their current situation not filling?
- Fulfill a Prophecy
Much like gaining power and killing someone, fulfilling a prophecy ends up opening more questions. What goal do they need to accomplish in order to complete the prophecy? Why are they the best choice to overcome this goal—aside from the typical Chosen One plotline? What reason do they have to want to follow the prophecy?
- Overcome a Fatal Flaw
Overcoming a flaw probably comes the closest to actually giving your character a motivation, but it still doesn’t quite get where it needs to go. In order for this goal to work, your character needs to have already seen that this flaw is threatening their needs. Not merely holding them back, but actively threatening their survival. Flaws are also not typically things that just appear, they’re built out of habits and prior experiences. You need to start asking why this flaw and why is it now becoming a problem.
You might have noticed that each of these goals requires you to ask more questions about why it matters to the character. That’s a sure sign you’re missing their motivation. Instead of grasping at goals and trying to deduce what or why from the goals and their situation, try asking what your characters value the most. It might be their family, their reputation, freedom or their own survival.
Once you’ve determined what your character values, start asking how far they’re willing to go to protect that value—and what would they do in a response to an outside force threatening that value? This gives you ideas of what might trigger conflicts both internal and external.
What are some of your character’s motivations? Let me know in the comments below!