Writing Powerful Character Motivations in Your Story

Why do characters need good motivations?

Have you ever read a story where the characters’ motivations just weren’t solid?

It might have been the protagonist or the villain whose motivation lacked substance, but it just made the story drag.

When you learned what the antagonist’s main motivation was, and why he or she wreaked so much havoc throughout the story, you were left with a feeling of, “That’s it?”

Movies, like books, can also have lame character motivations.

I remember watching “The Santa Clause” as a kid and getting to the end of the movie when we learn why the kid’s stepdad stopped believing in Santa: because of a present he never got as a child.

He gets the present – a whistle that had been hiding in the bottom of Santa’s sleigh for 30 or so years – and suddenly starts believing again.

I remember, as a kid, thinking that was the dumbest thing … not a solid character motivation.

Whether you’re writing a screenplay for the next Disney Christmas movie, or a fantasy novel, you need to make sure your characters’ motivations are clear and that they make sense.

The Main Types of Motivations

If you’re struggling to figure out your protagonist’s motivation (or your anti-hero or villain’s motivations), you could start by considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In high school or college, you probably learned about Abraham Maslow and his “theory of human motivation,” often drawn up as a pyramid to show the hierarchy of human needs:

Image from Wikipedia

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that characters will need to have their basic (lower level) needs taken care of before they can focus on the higher-level needs.

If your protagonist doesn’t have any food or water, she is not going to be thinking much about her status in life and the respect she is being given.

At the same time, these needs can also overlap, which means your character can and should have more than one motivation.

If you want to make your story’s protagonist (or antagonist) a rounded and “real” character, you’ll want to create a good mix of motivations at various times in the story.

An Example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as Character Motivation

While this hierarchy is divided into eight sections, when it comes to writing character motivations, you’ll often find it simplified into five main segments.

These are the primary ones you’ll use when determining powerful motivations for your characters:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image from TCKpublishing.com

Think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

In the beginning of the story, her main motivation was helping herself and her sister survive in District 12.

When her sister’s name came up in the Reaping, suddenly her motivation switched to saving her sister. She quickly accomplished this by volunteering as Tribute.

Then her motivation became surviving the Hunger Games.

But it wasn’t that easy, because four different categories of needs were at play while she was in the arena:

Physiological Needs:

Katniss needed food and water. If you read the book, you’ll know that she severely suffered from a lack of water before she finally found it.

Safety Needs:

While trying to find food and water, Katniss had to avoid the Tributes who were trying to kill her.

Love and Belonging Needs:

Katniss joined up with Rue in the arena, both in an effort to protect the younger girl and because she needed her help.

And then there was Peeta. (Need I say more?)

Esteem Needs:

While Katniss couldn’t spend much time thinking about this larger need, it comes into focus more and more as the story goes on …

The need for freedom.

Why are they forced to participate in these deadly “games” against their will, and is there a way to beat the Gamemakers at their own game?

Clearly, author Suzanne Collins effectively tapped into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs while writing The Hunger Games trilogy in order to create an impressive blend of character motivations throughout the story.

Create Problems Leading to Character Motivations

Photo by George Milton on Pexels.com

So, what might this look like for your story?

Departing for a moment from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, another way you could determine your character’s motivations is by asking yourself this question:

What kind of problem is my character facing?

Usually, there are three main kinds of problems your protagonist will come up against:

External Problems

These will be problems relating more to the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs:

  • Your character needs a job to survive.
  • Your character’s mother is deathly ill.
  • Society as a whole is collapsing and your character needs to save it.
  • Your character is lost in the woods and must find shelter to save herself and her little brother.

Internal Problems

These will be problems relating more to levels three and four of the hierarchy, and will require a different set of motivations:

  • Your character has been in foster care all his life and has given up on finding a forever family.
  • Your character is looking for love (the motivation of every rom-com character, right?).
  • It’s a small town and your protagonist is trying to establish herself as a doctor (or teacher or sheriff).

Philosophical Problems

In every good story, there is something larger at stake.

There is a battle of good against evil.

It could be as small as the unpopular nerd trying to stand up against the cool kids at school …

Motivations for Protagonists and Villains

Your protagonists’ actions will be different from your antagonists’ …

But their core motivations might be more similar than you would at first assume.

Here are a few places to look for character motivations, whether it is your story’s protagonist or antagonist:

Let’s unpack these main places you’ll find character motivation …

  1. Desires and Longings

What does your character long for?

What do they desire so much that they are willing to give up ease, comfort, safety, etc. to obtain?

For your protagonist, a desire/longing could be:

  • Love
  • Belonging
  • Identity
  • Protection

For your story’s villain, a desire could be:

  • Power
  • Revenge
  • Lust

2. Beliefs

What does your character believe so deeply that it will lead them to make life-changing decisions?

Dumbledore’s beliefs regarding Harry Potter cause him to make certain decisions and commit to a course of action that cannot be undone, in hopes that Harry Potter will have the strength and ability to overcome Voldemort.

On the other hand, Voldemort also has a set of beliefs that carry the story forward …

And Voldemort’s followers have the belief that he is the most powerful wizard, which causes them to support him and his villainous actions.

The core beliefs will be different for protagonist and villain, but both should have motivations borne of deeply-held beliefs.

This will make your story stronger.

3. Relationships

You can also find great motivations in your character’s relationships:

  • Friendships
  • Family connections
  • Intimate relationships

Katniss Everdeen would never have found herself in the Arena if it hadn’t been for her sister.

Harry Potter would never have made it through his various adventures without Hermione and Ron.

Frodo Baggins would never have gotten to (and through) Mordor without a certain gardener named Samwise Gamgee.

4. Fears

Fears can be a powerful motivator for any story.

What does your story’s protagonist fear?

What is your antagonist afraid of?

Some of the fears can be the same, but they will lead to different motivations and actions depending on the character:

  • Regret
  • Dishonor
  • Death
  • Loss
  • Shame

Closing Thoughts on Writing Powerful Character Motivations

It might feel like a tall order to provide solid motivations for all your characters …

But it is an important part of the writing process.

The more nuanced and developed your character’s motivations, the more real the character will be for your readers.

Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be a big help in figuring out realistic motivations.

And understanding your characters’ desires, fears, relationships, and beliefs will enable you to craft unique motivations that fit them perfectly.

(If nothing else, you’ll definitely come up with something better than a missing Christmas whistle leading to a loss of belief in magic.)