Last week, I talked about how the characters make a story–how, even if a book doesn’t fall within a genre you normally read, you can find yourself enjoying it anyway if the characters are great. But, if the characters make a story, what makes the characters? Here’s a hint: it’s the same thing that moves the story forward, sets the stakes, and weaves the emotional tone. It’s the thing that leads the characters from point A to point B, and eventually, to a satisfying conclusion.
What motivates your characters? That is, what pushes them through the events of the story? Do they want to save someone, save themselves, or save the world? Do they seek something to make their lives complete, or are they trying to be a different, better person? Your character’s motivations not only make them who they are, they make the story what it is, too.
There are different layers of motivation, as well:
- The story layer. Whatever situation you put your character in, they will be motivated to change or overcome it. This is an integral part of the plot, and it makes up almost the entire reason for your story. Most stories at their heart are about a struggle, whether it’s someone trying to rescue their kidnapped child or someone trying to find a lost puppy. Your characters need a reason, and a kick in the pants, to be propelled through the tale you’re trying to tell.
- The person layer. Deep down, who is your character? What sort of emotions rule their life–fear, pride, ambition, anger? How do they react to things, and how will they react to the predicament you’ve plopped them into? Of course, they don’t need to react well–some of the best stories are about people being forced to deal with something they’re not equipped to handle, at least at first. What traits motivate your character to behave the way they do?
- The malleable layer. At the end of most stories, the characters have changed somehow. They’ve learned something, gotten stronger, maybe gotten more bitter, or they’ve had a huge shift in their thinking and the way they view the world. If the story didn’t change your character somehow, it’s time to evaluate why and how you can make that happen. Characters aren’t supposed to sit in stasis.
Motivation isn’t just about telling the story–sure, if your character is in a dire, immediate situation, they’re going to be focused on that. First and foremost, their motivation will be tackling difficulties, overcoming obstacles, and trying to reach a goal. But characters shouldn’t be solely comprised of their struggles, just as people in real life aren’t. Think about it–even in times of hardship, you still have a complex, multifaceted personality, don’t you? A good character does too. Even as they’re deeply embroiled in the events of the story, they are their own person, and their inner world, feelings, morals, and ideals will guide how they react to things and how well–or poorly–they take on what you throw at them. You don’t want a flat hero who’s just a hero for hero’s sake–flaws are beautiful and interesting!
What motivates you, and your characters?