Write It Sideways

How to Discover Your Characters’ Motivations

When’s the last time you did something completely random?

Have you ever picked up an orange and hurled it at the wall for no reason?

Hopefully not. However, you might have done something similar out of anger or frustration.

Can you think of a time when you gave money to charity, just because?

More than likely, you donated money because you wanted to help people less fortunate then yourself, or because you believe everyone deserves a chance, or maybe even out of obligation.

No matter what reasons you have for  doing the things you do, there are always reasons. Not too much in life is completely random, if you really stop to examine people and situations.

The characters you create when writing fiction are the same.

Here are 4 exercises to help you discover your characters’ unique motivations, and help you develop them in your writing:

1. Motivating Factors

Brainstorm a list of all the factors that motivate human behaviour. Here are some to get you started:

Taking a moment to think about all the things that make you want to do the things you do, or feel the way you feel, is the first step to defining your characters’ motivations.

2. People You Know

Make a list of 5 people you know really well. Beside each, make notes about how they (a) react to stress, (b) experience happiness, (c) treat other people.

After that, list what motivates each of these behaviours. Try to be as factual as possible, drawing from things you know; for things you’re unsure of, use common sense to hypothesize.

A person might make it their goal to treat others with respect because of religious beliefs, or maybe because they were disrespected in the past. Someone might react poorly to stressful situations because they have a deep-seated fear of failure, stemming from a past experience.

3. Characters from Literature

List 5 characters from literature and what motivated their actions throughout their respective stories.

Take, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His murderous thoughts are motivated by revenge (because his uncle secretly killed his father), along with anger, sadness and confusion (because his mother married his uncle so soon after his father’s death).

Add to this a host of other factors, and you have a well-developed character you can understand.

4. You: A Real-Life Character

Write paragraphs to describe (a) your most frightening experience, (b) your happiest experience, (c) your most stressful experience, and how you reacted to each situation.

Afterward, list all the factors that motivated your behaviour. Consider, how is your personality shaped by your motivations?

Get Writing

Once you’ve spent some time analyzing human behaviour, you’ll naturally begin to see your characters’ motivations. Keep in mind, the most important thing is to ask ‘why?’  Why do people act a certain way? Talk a certain way? Believe certain things?

Well-developed characters should take on a life of their own, as if they are real people. What motivates them should follow logic, and cannot be forced.

What are your favourite literary characters, and what motivates their behaviour? Please share any other tips you have for developing motivation in your characters.