Creating Fictional Characters—Part 7: Giving Characters Goals and Motivation

Why on carCharacters in your story must have reasons for their actions. In real life, we don’t know what people are thinking or why they do what they do, but in fiction, readers will accept the characters’ actions only if they believe the reasons for them. They ask “Why did he do that?,” and they expect an answer—from words and actions of the character at some point in the story.

Your main character(s) must have the desire for change. Characters who never change are boring. Fiction is all about change.

  • Everybody wants to be happy.
    • Characters want happiness, a sense of self-worth or self-importance.
    • They want to avoid unhappiness and loss of self-esteem.
    • The specific situations and possessions that constitute happiness or unhappiness may be very different for different characters, but they—like real people—want what makes them happy.
  • Everyone is afraid of something. 
    • What is your character scared of? 
    • What will he or she do to overcome the fear?
The direction of change in fiction is the road to happiness.
  • Characters tend to lead the kind of life they enjoy. 
  • They’re on a search for some combination of five things most people want:
    • Adventure – new experiences, excitement, thrills
    • Security – financial, physical, and emotional
    • Recognition – fame, honor, being known
    • Love – all kinds: romance, love of family, friendship
    • Power – authority, control

Your characters must have goals. They must want some specific thing to be different in their lives. Goals are essential to test your character to demonstrate he’s worthy of the readers’ attention.

  • There are two kinds of goals.
    • The general goal is the character’s main overriding goal for the entire story: win the presidency, marry a rich man, solve the mystery.
    • The immediate goal is a smaller goal that must be met on the way to the general goal: various steps in the campaign for president, meet and attract a rich suitor, gather evidence and consider suspects.

Your characters must have drive, the “give a hoot” factor, an inner pressure, the  intensity of character’s desire to change.

  • Characters have to care, to feel that their goal is important. If it’s not important to the character, it certainly won’t be important to the reader.
  • Drive is the key ingredient of commitment, and the more committed your character is, the more readers care about him. 
  • In real life, people “drift,” but drifting is boring; driving is exciting. Characters may drift at first but as the story progresses, they must have something they care strongly about, whether they realize it or not.
  • Give your character something to care about, consciously or unconsciously. Fit him with a goal suitable to the direction you’ve given him.
  • Threaten that goal, that something he cares about. There’s no story if the protagonist reaches his goal easily. Characters must face conflict, obstacles to reaching their goal, throughout the story.
  • Establish reasons for him not to quit, not to give up—reasons for him to keep fighting and ultimately attain his goal.

Your characters’ attitudes are important in their drive.

  • Attitudes are consistent dispositions that your character is reluctant to relinquish, whether rational or not. Attitudes are products of conditioning.
  • Each character has many attitudes about different aspects of life and the world. Together they form the dominant attitude.
  • Attitudes change in different circumstances.

Characters need both goals and motivation.

  • Goals are what characters want to do or achieve or acquire: get rich, become a doctor, have a large family.
  • Motivation is WHY they want to do, achieve, or acquire it: he grew up poor and other kids made fun of his clothes, she saw her mother die at a young age, he was a lonely and unhappy only child.
  • The character may not know why he does something. Rationalization is coming up with an excuse, a reason that is believable, whether or not it’s true. We do this in real life—we buy a car because it’s luxurious, but we rationalize that we bought it because it’s got a good safety record and is a good investment.
  • Readers must be convinced that the character’s motivation would lead to his or her actions. If readers don’t believe the character’s actions fit with his motivation, they won’t care about what happens to the character. And when readers don’t care about the characters, they don’t care about the story.

How do you give your characters goals and motivation?

Creative Commons License photo credit: openpad

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