Character motivation

by Mrignayni Pandey
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character motivation's example from my novel

Read the marked comment (GD106) on my first novel by my editor, Graham Dixon, carefully. Graham is talking about character motivation in those lines.

The abusive father character is a well-known trope in novels, and in life. But this guy seems simply psychopathic. Every character is mean for a reason – what’s his reason? Give us two lines which explain why he’d beat his family. He’s successful man, but something is eating at him, what is it?

What’s the reason for your characters to do what they are doing ? The answer to this question is your character motivation.

To make sure that no writer makes all the blunders that I did in my first attempt at writing stories, I have decided to share this article on the importance of character motivation and how to go about using them in your story.

In this article we would discuss:

  1. Why do you need a character motivation in your story?
  2. The four primary characters in any story and their motivations
  3. Is character motivation and character goal the same thing?
  4. How character motivation is derived from an inherent need
  5. Conscious and sub-conscious character motivation
  6. Rational and irrational character motivation
  7. Questions you have to ask to develop the course of the story
  8. Examples of character motivation in novels and movies.

Why do you need a character motivation in your story?

character motivation

There can be no story without a character motivation. If a story was just about a dull girl who goes to school everyday, is an academic failure, paints all day long and gets to be first in the class at the end of the story, then nobody would be buying it.


Because the readers don’t care about the girl in the story. There was nothing to elicit any sympathy towards that girl, right?

But if the story were about that same dull girl who resolved to be the first in class when she got to know that the toppers were rewarded a drawing-kit and color-paints and in the end achieves that, the story would sell really sell well in a children’s book.

The difference between the first and the second instance was about character motivation. The girl had something to look for in the second story and the question “will the girl get those coveted rewards in the end” would keep the readers till the end of the book.

However, this was a very crude example and must you must not be mistaken to believe that only the protagonist must have a character motivation to get the story going.

Your minor characters and antagonists need a motivation as much as your protagonist. This is not to say that they cannot escape without a motivation but amoral, dystopian characters will simply draw more attention when their villianity is justified.

Doing this also makes your characters seem more credible to your readers.

There are four types of primary characters in any story according to Michael Hauge, and knowing them is important when we are trying to understand character arcs and character motivations.

a song of ice and fire

The central character/hero– This is the character with whom the readers or the viewers( in case of a movie) most identify. It is the central character’s outer motivation that defines your plot. (Wait. I am sorry if the word ‘hero’ sounds sexist. But I refer to both male and female protagonists while using the term:).

Can you tell me the hero in R. R. Martin’s ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’ ?

Reflection– The hero of your story will be most closely aligned with his reflection. It could be wife for a husband, husband for a wife, teacher for a student, mentor for a trainer and so on. This character serves to help our central character achieve his/her outer motivation. The reflection character knows the conflicts inside of the hero and is usually the one who tells the hero when he is not being ‘a hero’.

In the Lord of Rings, Gandalf (in the initial phase) and then Samwise Gamgee are the reflections of the protagonist Frodo Baggins.

lord of rings

Nemesis: Villians and opponents of your hero come under this. They are usually in opposition to the hero and in most cases, obstacles to get to their goal. But villians must not always be thought of as repulsive, ugly and devilish characters. Nemesis could also refer to a character that embodies the hero’s inner conflict or is a stark opposition to the values that the hero most values in his/her life. Ellis Redding in the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a very good example of this. (More on this later).

shawshank redemption

I simply love this dialogue of the Joker in the Dark Knight.

I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no…no you complete me.

It tells us how the hero and the villain complete each other. In fact, I feel the dialogue applies to Batman more than the devilish Joker.

What would our Batman do without the Joker, right?

Heck, there would be no story at all!

Romance: It is the object of a hero’s sexual orientation. On the outer level, the romance is the central character’s goal and is a part of the conflict but on the inner level it is the reward of winning over that conflict. In Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, the protagonist Roark not just wins over all the ‘second-handed’ people in the world but also gets to be with his love, Dominique in the end.


Above, all the things I have suggested, you will be able to see and write clearly once you know what your drives your characters towards their goals.

Is character motivation and character goal the same thing?

prince of thrones

No. They are not.

Character motivation is what drives your character towards his/her goal.

Character goal is ‘ what your character wants to achieve ‘. Character motivation is why your characters want to achieve what they want to achieve.

In Mark Lawrence’s book ‘The Prince of Thorns’, the prince’s motivation is to avenge the murder of his mother and brother but his goal is to regain the kingdom’s throne. (More on this later)

Character motivation is derived from an inherent need

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need” in psychology best describes this need in character motivation. American psychologist Abraham Maslow, described the levels of human needs as follows.

character motivation and maslow's hierarchy

He tells us that needs lower in the hierarchy and in the deficiency level (the bottom four) must be met before moving to the top which is the growth level in the pyramid.

Similarly, character motivations are driven by an emotional, physical or psychological need that you have to figure out for your story.

Conscious and sub-conscious character motivation

Your story’s character motivation can be conscious or sub-conscious. The former’s goal and motivation is explicit to the readers. There is action, dialogues and interaction with other characters that can show this. In the movie, ‘A Star is Born’ though Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) was attracted to Ally(Lady Gaga) from the beginning, it is his best friend Noodles’ (Dave Chappelle) conscious motivation that exhorts him to go out and marry her.

a star is born

Sub-conscious character motivation is not very easy to incorporate in a story. They are drives that the character cannot understand. They are powerful tools for deeper characterization and allows the readers to know the psychology of your characters. Only a writer who knows his characters very well can do that. Arya Stark’s character in the first season of the Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this. She chooses to be smart, strong and tough without any conscious motivation.

game of thrones and character motivation

Rational and irrational character motivations

Depending on the life experience and personality of your character, you can have rational as well as irrational character motivation.

It is a myth to believe that chasing a goal should always have a rational cause like saving the world, taking back the throne or something like that.

Nobody has forgotten the Joker’s character in the Dark Knight. Isn’t it ?

irrational character motivation

The Joker, popularly described as “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” who wants to wreck havoc in the city of Gotham, is motivated just because he wants to create Gotham as per his own image. He is simply an agent of chaos.

Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.

Writing about the Joker’s character must have felt awkward to any newbie screenwriter. But Jonathan and Christopher Nolan knew how to make the character credible to the viewers.

Health Ledger in his stellar performance undoubtedly justified it as well.

Character motivation in any story is generally a mix of both the rational and the irrational.

Questions you need to ask

character motivation and questions you should ask

Once you have figured out all of this, these are the questions that you should go about asking yourself to know the course of your story.

What do my characters want? (character goal)

Why do they want it? (character motivation)

What is the plan to get what they want? (the action)

What are the obstacles to overcome in the course of the plan? (the conflicts)

What are they to lose if they do not get what they want? (the stakes)

Consequences of the action or inaction of the character? (the result)

Character motivations in novels and movies :

Jorg Ancrath in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns :

A classic grimdark fantasy and the first in the Broken Empire series, the story’s central character, Jorg Ancrath, is a prince who is stripped of all his pride when he sees his mother and brother brutally murdered in front of his eyes. He learns the ways of outcasts and toughens himself till he can feel no more. He is then back to regain the throne through the only way he knows he can do this i.e. by bloodshed. But little does our Prince realize that the way up isn’t that easy. There is betrayal and the coming back of familiar dark memories. Will the Prince wrest back the throne or whether the dark forces will coalesce to vanquish his attempt ?


The synopsis makes it very clear that the motivation of the Prince is vengeance of the Ancrath family’s murder and wresting the throne is his goal.

Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption :

Watch this clip and see Andy’s internal inspiration to go to Zihuatanejo and live a happy life. You can also appreciate how Ellis Redding’s character is a perfect nemesis to Andy’s most cherished ideal of hope.


In the end, Andy inspires Redding to be hopeful and get ‘busy living’.

Enjoyed reading my article on character motivation ? Have something to ask ? Feel free to comment in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you.

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