Discovering Character Motivation

How you choose to overcome them is what(1)

Plot – the things that happen to your character.

Motivation – why/how they choose to deal with the roadblocks in front of them.

I wrote a book. One hundred thousand beautiful words made it into my manuscript and I can tell you I was SO PROUD when I finally wrote THE END!!! I started what is essentially a marathon and made it all the way to the finish line.

Ahh those heady days of success. I was so chuffed with my work I packaged it up, wrote a fabulous cover letter and sent it out to a selected group of agents and publishers whom I was sure would fall over themselves to sign me up for a three book deal immediately.

I bet you can guess what happened next.

Yep, I got rejected. Oh let me count the ways I got rejected.

Most of them were one line copy and pasted responses like, “this isn’t what we are currently looking for…”, “thanks but no thanks” and “was that you standing outside my window and going through my garbage?”

It was a pretty low point in my fledgling writing career and of course I reacted badly. I ranted about how the world was unfair and cruel. How could I have poured so much of myself into something and have it rejected? Clearly agents couldn’t see talent even it bit them on the ass.

It went on for a while folks. Not my proudest moment.

And then something interesting happened. I received another rejection but this time the kind agent who had taken the time to point out a few of the reasons why they liked my idea but couldn’t consider taking it on as it was. The major factor being that, in their point of view, the heroine lacked motivation.

At first I was appalled. How dare they suggest that I had left out such an important device from my masterpiece. But then I read it again. And you know what? I had my character roaming around the countryside, meeting interesting people, falling in love and solving problems but nowhere, from beginning to end, did it clearly show her motivation. There was no explanation for why she did the things she did or how those choices ultimately made her grow as a person through my rambling tale.

It was a tough lesson but one well learned.

In many ways motivation seems obvious. Surely it is implied. For example if you are writing a story about a character who is tying their shoe laces then they must be going for a walk right? Maybe. Or maybe not. What if your hero likes to wear shoes at all times because he stepped on snail when he was six and he now lives in constant fear of doing it again.

Just because a character is doing something does’t mean it is obvious to the reader why.

So here are my tips for helping you discover your character’s motivation.

Ask yourself why

This might seem like a strange idea to some people but if you are going to commit to the thousand hours it takes to write a book, not even edit it just write the thing, then why do you want to tell the story of this character? Why should your audience care what happens to them? Who is this person going to become because of their journey?

Create a status quo

Every good character needs to start somewhere. Harry Potter was stuck living in a cupboard, Elizabeth Bennett needed to find a husband and Katniss was born into a world that was unjust. As a reader we need to understand where the hero or heroine comes from before we give them the plot point that drives them to leave or change the world they have always known.

Interview your character

Whether it is over a cup of tea or in a dark room with a bright light shining in their eyes, imagine sitting across from your hero and asking him some questions about himself. Find out why he does things the way he does and what his reactions would be to a given situation.

Use a motivation generator have this awesome Motivation Generator. It is a really fun way to spend 1o minuets and get some great ideas at the same time.

If you have any great ideas about discovering a characters motivation or anecdotes about your own writing share them in the comments below.