Ink-Stained Scribe

Specific Motivation for Characters

You may be surprised at the changes...
While doing the outlining workshop, a few of the folks tried to pass off "to be happy" as a character motivation. Sorry, folks - no dice.

It's not that "to be happy" isn't a motivation, but it's sort of the quintessential motivation, and that's the problem. When you're setting up what your character wants, it needs to be as specific as possible, because that specificity will help your character seem unique.

"To be happy" is not unique. Just like we can trace all life back to the sun (well, as far as I know), everyone is motivated by the pursuit of happiness. Does your villain want to destroy the world? Why? Because on some level, world-destruction makes that character happy, or at least satisfied.

And satisfied is like happy. For sociopaths.


Motivation needs to be specific, and if it's not, all the cool shit they can do doesn't matter, because we don't know why it's important. A while back, I saw a youtube video about how Disney princesses always have their "motivation establishing song." I can't find that video now, but here are some of the relevant songs:

Belle: I want adventure in the great wide somewhere...

Ariel: I want to be where the people are...

Mulan: When will my reflection show who I am inside...

Snow White: Someday my prince will come...(barf.)

Ignoring the gag-inducing passivity of the Snow White motivation (If you haven't read the "YA Cover Trends" [aka, Dead Girls on Covers] essays over on Rachel Stark's blog, Trac Changes, I command thee go read.)  you can see that all four of these chicks at least know what they want, and we learn that before they have to start fighting to make it happen or, in Snow White's case, before she is rudely taken advantage of by her step mother, and then randomly sexually assaulted by some chump with a white horse and a crown, and then circumstances allow everyone else to make her dream happen.

But how does one go about figuring out a specific motivation for a character?

The way I've decided to define specific motivation is by breaking it down into two parts:


Desire is whatever it is your character wants. This should be the thing that pulls them toward the ending, the thing that they want to fight for. For example, the two main characters of HELLHOUND:

Helena: to gain true freedom and peace for herself and her pack.
Jaesung: to take care of the people he cares about (the way his father didn't).

Method is the course of action your character plans, must, or eventually decides to take in order to achieve their goals. To know this, you must know first what is keeping them from achieving their desires. Again, I'm going to use the cast of HELLHOUND as an example.

What stands between desire and:

Helena: Gwydhain is hunting the Hellhounds, the Sorcerers Guild is hunting her, and Jaesung's attention/suspicion puts her in danger of revealing her secret. 
Jaesung: Helena won't tell him what's going on, so he can't protect her from it. He's still in school and doesn't make enough money yet to help resolve his father's debt.
So, what's their course of action, given these obstacles?

Helena: protect the book with the Hellhound creation spell, learn enough magic to defeat Gwydhain, keep her autonomy from the Sorcerers Guild, and keep her true nature hidden from her roommates. 
Jaesung: find out what's going on with Helena so he can support her...and to make sure she's not endangering anyone else he cares about; finish his degree in applied mathematics and get a good job so he can take care of his family financially.

From these pieces of information, we can decide what each character's specific motivation is. For now, I'm just going to pick the most important obstacle.


Helena: wants to gain true freedom and peace for herself and her pack BY protecting the book with the Hellhound creation spell and learning enough Magic to defeat Gwydhain. 
Jaesung: wants to take care of the people he cares about (the way his father didn't) BY finding out what's going on with Helena so he can support her, or at least make sure she's not endangering anyone else.

CHARACTER wants to achieve DESIRE by taking a COURSE OF ACTION.

I don't think your characters' initial courses of action need to be successful - Helena fails both to protect the book and to learn enough Magic to defeat Gwydhain, and so must come up with an alternate solution. I'm not going to tell you if Jaesung is successful or not. You'll just have to wait and see...

What is your main character's specific motivation? Is their initial course of action successful? What's their next course of action?