How to Write Believable Characters Using Character Motivation: 8 Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 10, 2019 • 5 min read

Why does anyone do what they do?

People are equally compelled by external motivations as internal motivations. That might be as complex as saving humanity from murderous aliens, and as simple as saving face—but there’s a reason, conscious or not, behind a person’s every move. Great fiction reflects this motivation and a good writer knows how to incorporate clear motives into their character’s actions.



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What Is Character Motivation?

The sole dramatic question in your novel—or even in a creative nonfiction piece—depends on understanding the motivations of your characters, be they a hero or villain. The reasons behind each action they take in your narrative should make sense—to the character and the reader. What are their goals, and how are they planning on achieving them? Why must they do this? Heroes don’t have to be perfect specimens of bravery and strength. In fact, those protagonists tend to be boring. Great heroes emerge from the trials they encounter.

Compelling characters sometimes come with irrational motivations. As long as you establish what’s important to your character—saving their family from eviction, or fighting to keep their business from going under, or avenging the death of a loved one—and continue to help the reader imagine what might happen if the hero loses that important thing, then you can create highly motivational stakes.

4 Types of Character Motivation

In fiction, there are two types of characters—flat (only one or two relevant characteristics to the story) and round (complex and well-developed). The biggest difference between them is how much the reader understands their motivations.

Motivation is ultimately revealed in the choices someone makes. Remember: motivations can be both unconscious and conscious, determining character traits like biases, personality, and psychology, based on past events. Deciding how much to reveal a character’s backstory is crucial in aligning a reader with unconscious motivations; Conscious motivations are a much clearer reaction to external triggers.

  1. Honorable. In The Hunger Games, when Katniss Everdeen’s little sister is called to The Hunger Games, a televised game where 12 youths fight to their death with only one victor, Katniss decides to go instead. Throughout the story, Katniss’s love for her sister prompts her to continue fighting both in the games and against the government.
  2. Dark and twisted. In Silence of the Lambs (1988), Clarice Starling relies on serial killer Hannibal Lecter to help her catch another killer. But beneath her apparent repulsion for Lecter is an equally compelling admiration for him which comes to border on obsession. It is safely justified by a professional need to understand him, but that unconscious desire—to befriend and even emulate Lecter—is so horrific that she cannot express it until the sequel, Hannibal (1999) when the two characters run away together.
  3. Shifting. The Catcher in the Rye closely follows 16-year-old Holden Caulfield through a period of teenage crisis. Caulfield is a complex character, whose motivation and inner drive are not readily apparent, leaving the reader at an unsteady remove—in a sense mirroring the character’s outlook.
  4. The martyr. In Dan Brown’s Inferno (2013), Bertrand Zobrist creates a virus that will wipe out most of the earth’s population, but he is doing it to save the planet. He thinks he’s found an answer to a moral gray area (saving a tiny minority of humans is better than saving none), leaving Langdon in a position to defend the other side of that argument (that all humanity is worth saving).
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8 Tips for Using Character Motivation in Your Storytelling

There are many ways to build believable characters with complex motivations. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  1. Create a character notebook. A character’s backstory colors everything the character wants, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Create a character notebook for your novel’s protagonist, where you can collect ideas for your main character, big or small. Include traits, attributes, impactful events, and objectives that you can always reference when exploring the character’s motivations. Obviously, this will not be published, so go as in-depth as you’d like.
  2. Use internal monologue. One way to create intimacy with your reader—and to get them to care about your main character—is to use internal monologue to allow the reader to see a character’s thoughts as they happen, laying their motivations bare.
  3. Create a moral grey area. When creating motivations for heroes and villains, a key principle to remember is that making a decision between good and evil is never really a choice. All humans will choose what is good based on how they see it in their own story. You must elaborate on why your villain is choosing his own good (which to readers appears evil). This is where your moral gray area becomes important.
  4. Craft a complex character. Usually, the bad guy’s motivations will create a crisis for your hero, so spend time crafting a thoughtful character. Every villain needs to have his own morality. If a villain spends part of the novel killing people, you need to give him or her believable reasons for doing so. Make the reader understand exactly what desperation or belief has driven him to it.
  5. Leave space in your character descriptions. Remember that the way you present your character speaks to what that person’s motivations are as much as what they look like or how they dress. Be spare with the words you use to describe a person or a scene. The more elaborate you try to be the more you betray your own biases into the text. You want to leave space for the reader to fill in the blanks.
  6. Switch a character’s motivations. Real people change their minds all the time, for any number of reasons. Part of creating a believable character arc might involve a motivation change—when the characters’ desires shift to accommodate new information, for example.
  7. Use story pacing. Utilizing elements of time and pacing, like a ticking clock, is a great motivator often deployed in the thriller genre. You’ll find that desperation will very quickly distill a character’s goals.
  8. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sociologist Maslow’s pyramid places things like self-actualization and self-esteem above more tangible, concrete needs like food and safety, might be a good place to start when building believable motivations for complex characters. Only after someone satisfies their needs at the base of the pyramid are they driven to consider the more intangible, philosophical concerns at the top.


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