Character Motivations

Why did the chicken cross the road? This is a well-known question, one most people have heard as the beginning of a joke (or an attempted joke) at least a few times in their lives. There are many different answers but all of them stem from the same original question, a question that, when stripped apart and taken away from the “joke”, is all about motivation. So, why did the chicken cross the road? The better question is, why did the chicken want to cross the road? Or even, did the chicken want to cross the road? Because therein lies the true answer of why the chicken crossed the road.

Now, hands up who’s still with me?

Good. Let’s move on.

Characters are like chickens. (At least for the purposes of this blog post.) Every character we create has to be written for a reason, they have to have a specific motivation for why they do what they do. Why, exactly, are they the perfect person to fit the role we place them in? This isn’t just important for the major characters—it’s also important for the minor characters. Even the cameo performances need to be written for a reason, with the correct motivations. But of course, as fundamental as it is for the minor characters, it’s absolutely essential for the major characters.

A question we writers have to constantly keep in mind when we’re writing is this: why is my protagonist my protagonist?

Think about it—what is so special about them that they should have an entire book (or series) dedicated to their life? That is a lot of words, time, energy, love, and all the rest to give to someone, fictional or not. So we’d better make sure we’re giving it to the right person!

I’m currently working on a new novel and I’m at a place where I know who my main characters are and why they are my main characters, and I also have my secondary characters developed as well. What I don’t have and what I keep asking myself every day is this:

Why are my bad guys, bad guys? And what makes my good guys, good guys? What if, actually, my bad guys are really the good guys, and the good guys think they’re good guys but they’re actually the bad guys?

I’ll tell you, it’s totally doing my head in! And that’s because I can’t cement down the good-vs-bad motivations for my characters. I can’t figure out why they’re motivated to do the things they’re doing. There needs to be some grand purpose, some huge reason for why they’re acting the way they’re acting. It’s so challenging because I’m more of an all-or-nothing writer. I love writing fantasy because you can make up that the protagonist has the power to save the entire world—and because it’s fantasy, that can be ‘believable’ in the scope of the general concept. But the novel I’m working on at the moment is set in the real world, so I can’t exactly say that the main characters are doing what they’re doing to save the entire world—just a part of it. And if it’s only saving a part of it, then are the bad guys really all that bad? Why aren’t their motivations larger than what they currently are? Don’t they have any aspirations to take on the entire world? (And then the questions spiral until they make the entire concept outlandishly unrealistic.)

You see my problem? So it all comes back to motivation. And, apparently, chickens. (*Head Bang*)

21 thoughts on “Character Motivations

  1. I am sooo with you.
    Even if, lately, I found myself in a slightly altered condition. It was quite easy to find my character’s motivation. He was only an appearance at the beginning, but he gave the story the right spin. Exept that, when I gave him the motivation he needed, he started asking for more. It’s a bit like your bad guys: you tell them their motivation is to conquer the city and they stand up and say “Why not the world then?”.
    It might be these chickens have lately slipped a tiny bit out of my hands… they conquered the roost!

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