How to Motivate a Great Character

September 14, 2020 by Evan Braun


This post is part of our special series that unpacks the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. For novels, we carefully consider the characters within the manuscript, so today is the conclusion of our two-part series on character development. (See also, part one, How to Conceive a Great Character.) Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.

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In the previous blog post in this series, I started a conversation about how to create richly textured characters, focusing on their quirks, tendencies, backgrounds, and attributes. When you apply that advice, you’ll end up with an interesting base for a character.

But there’s another crucial level to characterization that needs to be given a great deal of careful thought: motivation. In other words, why does your character do the things they do?

A few years ago, a writing mentor of mine gave me the following brainstorming prompt: “What does your character want and how far would they go to get it?” This prompt opened up a whole new world for me, allowing me to think in a new direction in terms of how my characters acted and reacted to the world around them.

If I recall correctly, that prompt was given to me specifically in terms of building a compelling antagonist (the villain), but I’ve since applied this question to every type of character in my writing—a pursuit which has turned out to be highly rewarding.

Asking this question while you’re still in the process of building your character will give you a really good idea of how that character will fit into the book’s overarching plot. It gets to the central question of this post, which is to figure out what is motivating your character to do the things they do.

To illustrate this, I’ll use an example from my own writing. In the first volume in my Watchers Chronicle series, The Book of Creation, I have a number of characters, all of whom are secretly working at cross-purposes with each other.

The story revolves around three characters who under ordinary circumstances would have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but the events of the book have brought them together to undertake a quest of mutual interest. The key thing to realize is that no character has the same motivation as any other, and no character knows the others’ true motivations. This results in a fantastic amount of unspoken tension.

One character’s career is in shambles, and achieving the quest is absolutely essential to him regaining his professional standing. Another character doesn’t believe the quest is even possible to achieve, but he’s being paid a huge sum of money to lend a hand. The third character’s goal is actually to undermine the quest, by achieving it and then doing something controversial that will have rendered the quest pointless to the other two characters.

And what none of these three characters know is that the man who’s hired them has still another unknown purpose for the whole affair.

It’s quite an interesting tangle to unravel. From a writing perspective, this allowed every character to shine in their own very particular ways. I had a lot of fun playing these characters off each other.

I would encourage you to think about your characters’ motivation in similar ways. Never forget this underlying question: “What does your character want and how far would they go to get it?” You may find that this question leads your characters down some surprising paths you never would have expected.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.