Friday, April 20, 2012

Help! My Character is Perfect! Character Motivation

By Jill Williamson

Now that you know what kind of background your characters came from, it’s time to focus on the story. Motivation is the most important thing to know about your characters when telling a story. What your character wants drives his or her actions. And you should know the internal and external motivation for every major character in your story.

Internal Motivation
This is what your character wants out of life. Something that is behind almost every decision he makes, even when he doesn’t realize it.

External Motivation Internal motivation usually stems from life experience. It grows out of your character’s past, his childhood. Let’s use Garrett Thomas as an example. Garrett was raised in an affluent home. His father was a senator, his mother a lawyer. Both parents took pride in their country. Garrett’s grandfather died in Vietnam and Garrett considers him a hero. He wants to make a difference in the world in the way his relatives have. He wants to be a part of patriotism. His internal motivation is serving his country.

This is your character’s goal. External motivation stems out of the present. What does your character want out of the situation before him? This brings in your story’s premise—what your story is about. The external motivation needs to be something that matches your character’s internal motivation. If it doesn’t match, it goes against who your character is. Make sense? Let’s use Garrett again. There could be a number of external goals that identify with his desire to serve his country. Let’s say that he wants to be president. So now we know that Garrett loves his country and wants to serve it, and the external way he hopes to fulfill that internal motivation is to run for president.

Everyone Has Motivation
It’s important to remember that every character in your novel should have both motivations. The fact that motivations differ and clash is what causes conflict in your novel and what makes a novel interesting.

The Protagonist’s Motivation?
We know what Garrett wants. He wants to serve his country by running for president.

The Antagonist’s Motivation?
Every story needs an antagonist. This is technically the “bad guy” but he or she need not be evil. The point of an antagonist is simply to stand opposed to the protagonist’s motivations.
Treat your antagonist the same way you treat your protagonist. Take the time to get to know this person, their childhood, and their goals for the future. Develop how this antagonist will stand against your protagonist.

Whoever the antagonist is, he or she shapes the plot. In Garrett’s situation, the antagonist could be many different people: Garrett’s opponent for president, a girlfriend from his past who knows a secret that could destroy his campaign, an activist who threatens Garrett’s loved ones if he doesn’t back out of the election, a man from the future who tells Garrett that if he wins Garrett will inadvertently destroy the country. As long as this antagonist has strong internal and external motivations for stopping Garrett from running for president, the conflict will work.

Everybody Else
Many of your minor characters also need motivations that will come into play. Maybe Garrett’s wife secretly wants him to lose and helps the antagonist. Maybe Garrett’s father wants him to win so bad, that even when Garrett decides to back out of the election, his father, who perhaps was in charge of the campaign, tells the press that Garrett will not drop out. Minor characters are capable of setting the whole story on a different spin. Don’t neglect them.

Think about your main characters and come up with an internal and external motivation for each of them. Do some of the motivations conflict with each other? I hope so! Share your character’s motivations in the comments, if you’d like. And feel free to ask questions too.

Also, congratulations to those who made the top 20 in last round's contest. (Listed in alpha order):


Giselle Abreu
Gillian Adams
Kayla Anne CP
Rachel Crew
Paulina Cza
Lydia D.
Micah Eaton
Leah Good
Rayna Huffman
Clare Kolenda
Michelle L.
Rachel Leila
Taylor Lynn
Jenna Blake Morris
Jordan Newhouse
Rachelle Rea
Gretchen S.
Alison Schneider
Jessica Vieira
Rose Williams
Allison Young

32 comments:

  1. *clutches heart* I can't believe I made it!! :D

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    1. That was totally my reaction! I was sure I wouldn't make this one, I just scribbled mine out a couple hours before the deadline. Top 20 - yes!! :D

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  2. Yipee! Top 20 this time! Thank you judges and Stephanie! Cant wait to hear my feedback! Congrats to everyone else too:) Thanks! And great post. I know that I really need to work on my antagonist. Good tips, quite helpful:)

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  3. I have a question. You talked about having an antagonist to every story, but always it was a person. Could I have an antagonist be circumstances, or different events which keep my MC his or her internal motivation? Like, for instance, in my WIP my MC's internal motivation is to belong. Her external motivation is searching for her sister, who is in the foster care system. She doesn't have anyone really going against her per se... but certain events keep her from achieving this goal for a time. Does that make sense? Or should I come up with a character that can stand her way?

    Thanks for this post! I love learning about how to create better characters, so this is quite a delightful read!

    P.S YAY! I made top 20! *smiles like an idiot*

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    1. Yes, this is a good question. My antagonists often are circumstances, th past, events, and have people in them that help to drive the forces against my charater but they are not really the antagonist themself.
      Thank you so much!

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    2. I've read that nature is often an antagonist, and the MC himself (or herself) can be an antagonist - I believe Alcyone Everly is her own antagonist, for example. In "Mara, Daughter of the Nile" (one of the best-written books I've ever read), there is no one antagonist, merely dozens of characters all struggling for their own benefits. Fascinating. All this to say that yes, you can definitely work out not having a person as an antagonist.

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    3. I really like making my antagonists both. For instance, in my current WIP, The Common Denominator, my MC and his friends are running from the bad guys, and they also have to survive being snowed in, driving for hours on end, and things like that. Yeah, it may not seem like those would be much of an obstacle, but it really wears on your nerves, and emotional stability. So using both, I've found, is a really good tool. Sort of like in the Hunger Games. She was fighting both the capitol and the arena, thereby facing two antagonists.

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    4. I recently wrote a play for my theatre class in which the antagonist was botched electronics/technology. The main premise revolved around having Bell say "Watson, come here; I want you" into his telephone and instead of having Watson here and voila! Telephone works! a handful of historical figures from different time periods, etc. hear him through bells. :) A lot of fun to write. :)

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    5. Clarebear,

      Yes! Good point. I should have worded that better. Every story needs an antagonist, but it doesn't have to be a person. You can have:

      Man vs man, man vs. himself, man vs nature, man vs machine, man vs society...

      But those "antagonists" need to have a goal. So, a volcano's goal is to blow and possibly leak lava all over the place. That could very well clash with your main character's goal, which is suddenly: don't die! LOL

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    6. Thank you guys for such helpful comments! This clears things up for me nicely. :)

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  4. Mew follower:) I hope you like my blog

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  5. Wow... 1 am, somebody's up early.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. No kidding! Awesome posts at 1:00 ... could it get any better? :)

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    3. Confession: I scheduled this post early because I knew I would be on an airplane on Friday. *grin*

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  6. umm just a quick question...how long is a YA novel, by word count. Because I've heard authors say if you write 250-500 words a day, you'll get a novel done in time. Just a quick question :D

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    1. From what I've read/heard its generally 45,000 - 80,000 words total. It sounds like a lot, but 500 words is about one and a half to two pages. :)

      I find it doesn't take to long to write 500 words when its creative writing. It gets easier to write more and more each day, so you could start out with 250 and work up if your concerned about the length of time it will take to write.

      PS: Sorry about the extra comment bellow!

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    2. Also, 60,000 words is approximately 240 book pages in average book size.
      84,000 words = 382 pages
      Hope that helps as well.

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    3. Good answers Leila and Brian. I concur. :-)

      Although, my book Replication was 90,000 words, and it's only 296 pages, and if you hold it, it's tiny. But the pages are super thin, so the publisher made it look shorter than it way. Clever guys, anyway. *grin*

      But don't go by my word count. I talk too much and I write too much, so... yeah.

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  7. From what I've read/heard its generally 45,000 - 80,000 words total. It sounds like a lot, but 500 words is about one and a half to two pages. :)

    I find it doesn't take to long to write 500 words when its creative writing. It gets easier to write more and more each day, so you could start out with 250 and work up if your concerned about the length of time it will take to write.

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  8. Thank you for this post, Jill! This clears up a question I had about the difference between the two! :)

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    1. Sweet! I'm glad it was helpful, Rachelle!
      :-)
      Jill

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  9. Here are my MC's motivations: Her father died a year before my story occurs and her mother is always out of the house working. MC's internal motivation is to have someone to confide in and I suppose that her external motivation is to be popular. My antagonist discovers a secret about the MC and uses it against her, so she (the antagonist) can get the lead in the performance.

    Do these character motivations sound ok? And thanks for the post!

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    1. Yes, they sound good. The internal motivation is likely even more vague like: being loved or knowing she matters in the world. And then her external would be to find friendship, which she seeks in the popular crowd because that has the illusion of being so much better than anything else, even thought it's usually not.

      How do you work it out in the end? Does she find a true friend?

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    2. She discovers that a true friend is all she really needs in life and she becomes a better person in general.

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  10. Thank you for this post and all the others on character development! I found this to be really helpful, especially since I'm in the planning stages of my new WIP.
    I also always need to remember that the antagonists have motivations, too. :)

    Congrats to those who made the top 20!

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    1. You're welcome, Jill! I'm glad it made you think.

      And, nice name, by the way. *grin*

      Jill

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  11. Oh, my heart was pounding when I read that list! So excited I made it!

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    1. Congrats, Rose!
      And congrats to everyone who made the list.
      :-)
      Jill

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  12. Once again, these are fantastic tips for character development! It's definitely important to make sure that your character's motivations fit with who they are, and just one of the ways you can change someone in your story from a two-dimensional character into a three-dimensional person. Thanks for the advice, Jill!

    And oh my goodness, I made it into the top 20!! Eee, yay, I'm so psyched - thank you so much to the judges and to Stephanie!!

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