What really motivates your characters?

what motivates your characters

To get to the heart of what motivates your characters, you need to find out what’s most important to them. Here are three exercises to find out what values drive your characters.

When you start writing a story, for NaNoWriMo for instance, you might read a lot of writing advice that tells you to find your characters’ goals. Find out what drives them in their lives and you can work out how to use those goals to drive the story.

Most of this advice will tell that your character should have two goals: internal and external. The alcoholic detective’s external need is to find the killer while his internal need is to get over the loss of his wife, which is what drives him to drink. The young student at the school for magic needs to combat evil (external goal) while also trying to win approval among her peers (internal goal).

Having both an internal and an external goal adds depth to your character. This is what makes them seem more real, more three-dimensional (as the textbooks say).

But characters’ goals change throughout the story, and what motivates your characters might change as well. And they usually have many smaller goals to achieve on their way to the final battle. In Star Wars, for example, Luke Skywalker first wants to leave Tattooine, then he has to find Leia, then get off the Death Star, become a Jedi, and only then can he destroy the Death Star.

There is, however, one thing driving the character to meet all those goals, whether they’re internal or external. What really drives characters to achieve their goals is their values, their idea of what is most important in their life. The things that really matter to them. These never change throughout the story, regardless of the goals the characters pursue. Identifying your characters’ values will help you make sure your character is motivated throughout the story and acts consistently every time.

To find your characters’ goals, begin by asking a few important questions:

  • Who matters most to your character? Partner, children, friend, the cat?
  • When does your character feel most alive? At work, climbing mountains, investigating murders, sitting with the cat?
  • Who is your character’s hero? Who would they look up to and what qualities do they admire in that hero? Honesty, compassion, power, agility?

From your answers, you should already get a sense of what is most important to your character. It could be that family, career, justice, or friendship is what matters most. Other values could be anything from adventure and assertiveness to sexuality and spirituality.

To dig a little deeper for your characters’ values, try these three simple exercises:

1. The job ad
This exercise is useful in your preparations for NaNoWriMo. It can help early in the writing process to identify the characters you want in your story. It works equally well for already established characters too.

Have your character reply to a job ad for the position in your novel. You can set out some criteria and ask them how they would fit into this role, and have them include specific examples of when they displayed these qualities in their past.

You could have the character respond to the following:

  • What is your personal motto?
  • What are your most important personal qualities? Tenacity, caring, creativity, for example.
  • Do you have any hidden talents? Can you play the harpsichord or fly a helicopter?
  • What are your ambitions?
  • What would you not do in your role in this novel? Maybe your character won’t ever get on an airplane or spend any time with young kids. Would you still want this character? And what does that say about them?

2. The speech
Think of an important moment in your character’s life, even beyond the scope of the novel: a 25th wedding anniversary or an 80th birthday party. Try to make it appropriate to the values you’ve already identified from the questions above.

Imagine the detective’s retirement, and the captain is making an impassioned speech. What would the captain say about the detective’s role on the force, what did he bring to the job, what made him stick it out for so long?

What would a partner say about your character after 25 years of marriage? Or what would a child say at the 80th birthday party?

Another example is to write your character’s obituary. Imagine your character could read it. What would they like you to say about their life after it was over? What did they stand for? How did they make a difference?


3. Childhood ambitions
Think of your character as a young child. What did your character imagine their future would be like? Did they want a happy life with a family? Was there a specific person they admired and wanted to be like? If so, what qualities did that person have that the child character admired?

Write a few lines about your character’s ambitions as a child. Examples of typical values not already mentioned are: fairness, responsibility, kindness, safety, romance, conformity, gratitude, and humor.

Try these exercises and questions for as many of your main characters as possible, not just your protagonist. And definitely try it for your antagonist. It might turn out the two are not so different and are actually striving for the same things in life. They just have very different approaches.

If you can pinpoint your characters’ values, you will be able to identify their goals and have a clearer idea of how the character will react in any situation. And it can even be useful to try some of these exercises and questions on yourself, to find out what’s important to you in life and what drives you.

Are you so very different from your characters? Is what motivates you the same thing as what motivates your characters?

Image via ShutterStock.com.


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  1. Great post! Thanks for reminding us how important characters’ goals are. Although it’s a factor we take into account implicitly, it’s very useful to make it explicit and actually write it down as you suggest.

  2. Thank you for this article Jim.I have been ‘stuck’ at 7000 words for a while now and couldn’t work out why. Now I know I need to invest more in my character and find out who she is and how she will respond based on everything you raised here.

  3. Hi. Very good advice … this is where the writer needs to sit down alone somewhere and get to know these people with whom she will be working for the next few months. (or years?)

    Dr. Colleen Houston
    Johannesurg South Africa

  4. nice advice, but kind of hard to implement when your basic peremisis is to rip average joes out of their lives and throw them into a completely new world. Whatever “internal goals” they might have had tend to go out the window then . . .

    • Good point, Wendy. Although, I’d say that’s exactly where these exercises help. The goals, internal or otherwise, will certainly be very different in the new world, but the characters’ values–the things that are most important to them–won’t change, regardless of the situation they’re in. Find out those values and you’ll get a good insight into how that character will behave in the new world.

  5. Hey,
    I just really wanted to thank you for this. I’m saving it to my android so I’ll always have it on hand. There’s been a lot of talk thrown around about character motivation, and I’ve felt very stupid. Until now. Thanks so much again.


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