How Important is Character Motivation?

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A lot of articles and blog posts will tell you that one of the most important parts of a novel is the character motivation. In most books, the character’s goals are what drives the storyline. These kinds of books are often called character-driven stories, where the main plot is a supporter of the character’s development. So: how important is character motivation in a character-driven novel?

Definition: character-driven novels

Masterclass defines character-driven stories as “the type of story that is driven by emotion as opposed to a high concept plot.” (link to article here).

These types of stories focus more on the reasoning behind individual actions rather than big-picture happenings. Characters have more value than the actual plot.

Some examples of this are novels such as The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

What is character motivation?

Character motivation is what influences a character to make certain decisions.

These motivations/goals can be split up into 3 large groups: self-fulfillment needs, psychological needs, and basic needs.

Image from “How to Craft Powerful Character Motivations” by Kristen Kieffer on well-storied.com. Link to article here.

A character can strive for one (or multiple) things in a novel. The point of a character-driven story is to follow the character on their journey to the goal, whether they achieve it or not.

Examples of character motivations

Here are some ideas for character motivations:

  • Acknowledgement
  • Addiction
  • Adventure
  • Anger
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Avoiding pain
  • Be good
  • Be loved
  • Be normal
  • Be strong
  • Denial
  • Desperation
  • Dominance
  • Duty
  • Escape
  • Failure
  • Fame
  • Family
  • Fear
  • Fortune
  • Freedom
  • Friends
  • Glory
  • Greed
  • Guilt
  • Happiness
  • Hatred
  • Jealousy
  • Justice
  • Knowledge
  • Legacy
  • Loneliness
  • Love
  • Loyalty
  • Madness
  • Morality
  • Obsession
  • Overcoming a fear
  • Paranoia
  • Past trauma
  • Peer pressure
  • Poverty
  • Power
  • Pride
  • Protect
  • Redemption
  • Religion
  • Repay a debt
  • Revenge
  • Sacrifice
  • Safety
  • Success
  • Survival

How important is character motivation?

Very.

For character-driven novels, it’s essential. Without character motivations there would be no story. Character motivation is what makes characters relatable and realistic, which is vital to keeping a reader interested in reading a book.

In some cases, character motivation is the plot. The character’s choices in order to reach a goal can create an entire 200-page novel with many of the same elements as a plot-driven novel.

Conclusion

Use character motivation. Let your characters make mistakes or achieve success because of the choices they’re making. It’s an incredibly real example of what we do everyday as humans, and storytelling is largely an observation of the human experience.

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