You can’t catch a fish without the proper bait. Likewise, you can’t hook readers without believable characters. Fiction readers want a protagonist they can identify with and understand. This article discusses various uses of motivation as a tool in character development.
What is motivation and why is it important?
Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow’s motivation theory says that our unsatisfied wants and desires influence our behavior. In fiction, motivation is the desire or other psychological condition responsible for the actions of characters. Simply, it’s why characters do what they do.
Josip Novakovich says motivation is important because “a character without motive is not a character.” He believes a first step in character development should be determining what passions, fears, regrets, or desires consume the character. Then, show him interacting with his setting and other characters in a manner consistent with those possible motives.
Orson Scott Card agrees and adds that “motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts.” Motivation is also important, he feels, because it gives readers valuable insight into human nature and human behavior. “Readers want to know your characters better than any human being ever knows any other human being,” he explains. Understanding the motivations of fictional characters helps us understand ourselves.
How do writers discover the motivations of their characters?
Ask plenty of questions. Know your character inside and out. Know his past and present conditions and how he feels about them. Good characterization relies on the relationships between characters. Know how your characters feel about each other.
Card says the more interesting and intimate the questions the more “chances there are to move from shallowness to depth, from simplicity to complexity, from a merely fun story to a fun but powerful one.“
Asking questions is not only an effective way to discover what motivates characters, but it also helps the fiction writer avoid inconsistencies and unbelievable character portrayals. Consistency is a major consideration in character development. “The character . . . not only must be capable of doing the necessary acts, but also must be capable of having the necessary motivations,” Michael Banks cautions.
How do writers show the motivations of their characters?
The fiction writer can show his characters’ motivations through myriad ways — appearance, action, body language, or dialogue. Ansen Dibell likes to take advantage of conflict and tension when developing characters. “Motivations,” she explains, “are enacted against opposition, internal or external or both.” Heroes that never face adversity or internal turmoil are boring. Similarly, the villain without a shred of good is superficial. However, an ordinary person snared in some conflict or obsession can be irresistibly intriguing.
Novakovich recommends developing several characters with conflicting motives. He says it can generate “enough momentum” for the entire fictional story. Card calls this technique “elaboration of motive.” Besides keeping cliche out, it allows the reader a glimpse at the heart of the story by revealing “motives the characters don’t even know they have.” Numerous characters with strong motives at cross purposes can really drive a story.
Are there other ways to consider motivation during character development?
Ann Hood emphasizes developing characters’ “true feelings.” She believes emotion gives a character authenticity. In her book Creating Character Emotion, Hood surveys thirty-six emotions, from anger to worry. She demonstrates how to develop a character from the vantage point of each emotion.
Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters is another indispensable resource. She teaches the fiction writer how to approach character development holistically, delving into the character’s motivations, transformations, and emotions.
Banks, Michael A. “Plot = Motivation = Plot.” The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II. Ed. Jean M. Fredette. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1991. 52-57.
Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint: How to Invent, Construct, and Animate Vivid, Credible Characters and Choose the Best Eyes through which to View the Events of your Short Story or Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988.
Dibell, Ansen. “What Is Plot?” The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II. Ed. Jean M. Fredette. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1991. 41-51.
Hood, Ann. Creating Character Emotions: Writing Compelling, Fresh Approaches that Express your Characters’ True Feelings. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998.
Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.
Novakovich, Josip. Writing Fiction: Step by Step. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998.
Wikipedia contributors. “Motivation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 May. 2010. Web. 23 May. 2010.