Character motivations and why they are so important

Copy of Autumn (10)

This week I went to the theatre again, you may already be aware that this is one of my favourite ways to pass an evening. I was very much looking forward to this show, however, I was disappointed, and I want to use today’s blog to talk about why.

Full disclosure I’m not naming the show at any point, I like to keep this a positive kind of place and this blog is not an effort to bash anyone. It is a constructive look at why certain stories regardless of the medium just don’t work.

We will be talking about a crucial part of any story, and how if you get this wrong it kills the story dead. It disengages the audience and destroys any narrative you have built. Fortunately, it’s easy not to screw up (which is why it’s so frustrating when it does get messed up).

I am, of course, talking about character motivation.

What is character motivation?

Character motivation is pretty much what the name suggests. It is your character’s motivation, why are they doing what they are doing, what is it that has caused them to behave in the way they are currently behaving, what has spurred them into action?
As an example, A dragon, wanting to fight, has attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up and slays the dragon.
The king’s motivation was the recovery of his castle and his daughter. Because of this motivation, he made the proclamation. The knight’s motivation was the prize of the princesses’ hand and the future right to rule the kingdom.

Motivation isn’t a difficult concept to understand but it is crucial. It is the driving force behind your characters. It is the reason they act, create and drive the story forward.

What has this got to do with why I was mad at the theatre?

I was mad at the theatre because the show I was watching had inconsistent character motivations.

This is perhaps one of the most frustrating writing faux pas’ in existence, in my humble opinion.
Why is it so important to be consistent with character motivations?

Every story is made up of three parts,

1. The Setup.
2. The Confrontation.
3. The Resolution.

For a story to work well and be enjoyed by the audience it needs to have all three parts and they need to consistently link together and work with each other. This basic three-act structure is driven by characters, and motivations are what drives the characters. So, character motivation is critical to a story, throughout its entirety.

So, imagine if in the first two parts of the above structure the character is driven by their burning need to achieve goal A, then at the start of the third part, they forget this. Suddenly, and with no build-up, no warning and no character development your character suddenly decides their main motivation isn’t what interests them anymore, and they just stop.

Using the same example from earlier, A dragon, who wants a fight, attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up and has a sandwich, the dragon buggers off.

See how unsatisfying that is!

In the show, I watched the main character was strongly driven by their motivation throughout the first half, after the intermission that drive was the same, to the point they did some questionable things. Then suddenly they just lost interest in achieving their goal. Their sudden change of heart wasn’t even addressed. I honestly thought for a moment that I’d fallen asleep and missed a bit of the show. I immediately got irritated and left the show feeling unsatisfied (and pissed off, I’d spent my entire evening watching this character struggle and then she just stopped, for no reason and everything was suddenly fine).

Let me clarify, it is not wrong to change a character’s motivation. Change is fine, it’s natural for people to grow and develop, for a change in circumstance to change their perspective and priorities. But there must be something that causes change. It cannot just happen, it’s enraging.

Using the same example from twice before, A dragon attacked a castle capturing the princess. The King makes a proclamation saying whoever saves his daughter will win her hand in marriage and become the future king. A knight turns up, sees the dragon is massive and goes away to have a sandwich and think about his life choices. The dragon sees no one will challenge him and buggers off.

See, it’s the same as before but there’s a reason for it now.

Satisfying your audience

Part of the reason we take such joy in stories is because of how they make us feel, and the key feeling that we need at the end of a story is satisfaction. We need an ending that is in keeping with the story, it doesn’t need to be a happy ending, your main character doesn’t always need to have achieved everything they set out to achieve, all bad guys do not need to be defeated but the ending needs to be satisfying.

Character motivation is a key element of reaching that satisfying ending. Having your characters be consistent with their motivations or have good reasons for changing them will help you craft a satisfying ending for your audience. Focus on the motivations and writing a strong ending will be far easier.

One thought on “Character motivations and why they are so important

  1. Pingback: Establishing Characters’ Motives | Andrew McDowell

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