I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept. Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning. But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming. It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.
Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws. A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things. You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake. Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.
Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning? If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy. You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills. This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying. Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization. But what if you work for yourself? Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills. Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.
The same is true of your characters. They lead regular lives, for the most part. Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change. But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.
Let’s use Batman as an example. He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down. He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks. But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.
Is that his motivation all the time? Yes. And no. If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks. But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now. And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work. And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.
That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice. And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.
Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations? Of course they do. In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system. It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying. But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years. Those two motivations wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.
Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters. Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish. Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.