Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Internal and External Motivations

I received this question from a writer, "It's difficult for me to find what my main character wants... I only know what she wants internally, but I can't figure out what she wants externally, and I've heard from many different sources that your main character's external and internal wants are what drives the story. How do you come up with one when the story you want to write is more about her main character's journey to achieve her inner goal rather than her outer goal?"

This is a wonderful question, and it's something I struggle with as well. I'm really struggling with it at the moment, because the idea I'm currently composting is about a girl who's determined to always live in the moment and not worry about the future. So ... her goal is basically to not have goals. When I realized that, I kinda stared at the page, thinking, "Uh...."

Sometimes what happens for me is I try to make the external goal too complicated. I've
found that my character's internal goal is often something they don't realize they want and the external goal is something they do know they want. Not always, of course, but frequently.

Susan May Warren does a wonderful job with external goals. In her book Happily Ever After, the main character is opening up a book store. Her external goal is to get the building ready to open by the start of summer, when tourists flock to their town.

Often, external and internal goals work together. In So Over It, Skylar's external goal is to figure out what really happened on the night she was nearly date-raped. Her internal goal is to forgive herself for bad choices she once made.

So start by looking at your story and determining what it is your character knows he or she is working toward. If your character doesn't have a goal they know about, find one for them.

It can work well to have the external and internal goals work together, like in my example of So Over It, but it can also work to have the external and internal goals battling each other. Like to have a character whose internal goal is to live a simpler life ... but whose external goal is to run a boutique gift shop. Boutique gift shops sell things luxury items, so that would really battle with the character's desire to live simpler.

I hope this helps a little. Take comfort in the fact that you're not alone!


  1. !!! I have this exact problem! Lately I have not been able to get into the editing process. It just felt like something was completely wrong. And then one night it struck me - my character has NO OBJECTIVE. Oh my word.

    So, I came up with an objective. But it's kind of a passive objective because it's something she's already doing?

    Ren is part of the national border guard, and so her goal is to protect her country, which she does. Then magic comes into the picture, along with a quest for a spear, making things a little bit harder.

    So I think it'll work... but I'm still unsure. I'm re-doing the whole beginning and the way she meets her best friend, to add more drama. Basically, my editing life is a total mess - sorry to dump it on you :)

    Thanks for the post! I feel better now that I know I'm not alone.

  2. Ren, I had the same exact problem in the first draft of what would become my first was too short, too boring, and everything was happening TO my MC instead of my MC making stuff happening, you know?! Frustrating, but workable!

    Anyway, this is a really great post and a good reminder that there has to be stuff going on in the inside and outside! :) Thanks, Stephanie!

  3. Great post. I find that the best way to figure this out is to make sure not to over think it. To just put yourself in the characters shoes and imagine your story in your head, and once you've figured all that out, THEN decide what the internal and external motivations are.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  4. I completely agree. Though I haven't had much trouble figuring out external goals for the main characters, it's the supporting ones I've usually had a hard time with. I can get their personality and motivations down easy, but when I don't know what it is that's motivating them externally, well, sometimes it can seem like they're just following around the main character for the sake of the story... just in the "right place" at the "right time" and it feels to contrived, if that makes sense.

    So thanks for the post! I might have to come back and look at it again next time I'm having trouble thinking of an external goal.

  5. Morgan, I think that's really common. Or it's at least something I struggle with too. It's usually about halfway through the first draft before I determine what my supporting characters are struggling with, so my second draft involves some serious editing!