How to Clarify Your Character’s Motives (So Your Readers Connect & Relate)

When I think of my favorite characters, they all have something in common: they entertain me, but they also make me feel less alone. That’s why I read fiction. I like to be entertained, of course. But even more than that, I like relating to new characters. I like following someone else’s story and finding ways to connect.

When your ideal reader picks up your novel, she wants to be entertained. But that’s not all. She also wants to get to know your characters.

She wants a glimpse into your protagonist’s life: who she is, what she does, and how she makes decisions and copes with them. It’s not enough to describe things in a pretty or creative way. As a writer, you need to create a real person on the page, not a caricature. To do this, you need to clarify and understand your character’s motives.

What’s so important about a character’s motives?

First, a character’s motives explain her intentions. When your readers know why a character is making certain decisions, they will put more faith in her, even if she doesn’t always make the right decisions immediately. We’re all human, and sometimes our intentions are better than our actions reveal.

Second, a character’s motives explain her decisions. Making good choices, even though you mean to, isn’t always easy. The same goes for your characters. As the author, you have the power to manipulate your character’s world, including her decisions. But an authentic character is never, ever perfect. An authentic character makes bad choices sometimes. She has to figure out how to cope with them and move on, just like the rest of us. That’s part of what makes her story so engaging.

Here’s what I learned from my first protagonist (& why I fell in love with her!) #ToLennonWithLove

How can you clarify your character’s motives?

Start by looking at the physical progress your character makes from the beginning of your book to the end. Where does she begin? Where does she end up? Jot down the basic external events that got her from point A to point Z.

For instance, maybe she started as a bored, quiet housewife in the suburbs of Chicago, but when her husband got kidnapped by a band of vengeful clowns and whisked away to Italy, she had to rescue him. There’s the basic physical skeleton of her progress.

But why did she do it? Obviously, there were underlying emotional reasons that led her to morph from bored housewife to international heroine. Did she love her husband too much to let him go? Did she crave the adventure? Maybe they had children, and she didn’t want them to lose their father like she did as a child. Your character’s motives will explain why she makes her decisions and acts the way she does, for better or worse.

A villain or antagonist might appear to make a horrible decision (for instance, spreading a rumor or, I don’t know, murdering someone), but even those choices are rarely black and white. Maybe he’s driven by deep insecurity and a fear of abandonment, which causes him to manipulate people. Or perhaps he grew up in poverty, and now he’s afraid that if he doesn’t do whatever it takes to maintain his wealth, he’ll lose everything and become destitute again. Even bad decisions can be boiled down to something very human like love or fear.

If you’re feeling totally stumped and you don’t know where to start, here’s a simple equation to get the juices flowing:

My character is driven to _____________________ because ________________________. 

Next, flesh it out to include external and internal motivations. This can be quick and easy. Grab a sheet of paper or open a new document and make three columns. Jot down the following as briefly as possible:

  • Column One: Character Name
  • Column Two: External Motivation
  • Column Three: Internal Motivation

External motives might include physiological needs, such as food, water, shelter, or anything a character needs to stay alive. These are the physical instincts driven by self-preservation.

Internal motives are more psychological. For instance, your character might be driven to seek approval because she is deeply insecure. Or she might be so in love with someone she’s only focused on that person’s well-being, which drives all of her decisions. These are the things that motivate her emotionally, not just physically.

Do this for each character, even the minor ones. When you do this, you might even discover that some of your minor characters are unnecessary to your narrative.

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What will this accomplish?

Clarifying your character’s motives will make her more authentic. A more authentic character ceases to be a character. Instead, she becomes a real person the reader can connect with on an emotional level. Authenticity requires imperfection and vulnerability.

Imperfection + Vulnerability = Authentic Characters

That’s part of what makes her so relatable. When a reader can follow your character’s progress and say, “Yeah, I get it,” or “Me, too!” then you’ve created a person, not a caricature. Authentic characters move the narrative along and keep your readers engaged. Even more, they give readers someone to connect with.

What other methods do you use to clarify your characters’ motives and create more authenticity? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to join the Ladies in Read community on Pinterest!


How to Clarify Your Characters Motives (So Your Readers Connect & Relate) from TheLadyinRead.com >> writing tips, write a book, character motivations, creating authentic characters

About Meghan

Meghan is a novelist, blogger, and copyeditor fueled by coffee and red lipstick. When she's not typing away you can find her reading, organizing, or watching old sitcoms and superhero movies with her husband, cat, and baby-to-be.

2 Comments

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with at the moment! In genre fiction, where a lot happens to the protagonist, it’s quite easy (for me) to concentrate on the external motivations of the character and forget to develop the internal journey. I literally had a character who was “Girl traveling in Rome” for the whole first draft. Lots happened to her, and she had a lot of clear external motivations, but at the end I realised I didn’t really know who she was (or why she was traveling or what she wanted out of life!). Adding those motivations make for a much more fulfilling read. I love the idea of your equation!

    • I totally get it. I tend to do the opposite and focus too much on the internal instead of the external, so I had to figure out a way to keep myself balanced, too. I’m glad this helped!

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