Establishing Characters’ Motives

It’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself before when writing, and certainly one you must answer: what drives your characters? They all want something, just as people in real life want something. It can be love, hatred, power, wealth, knowledge, patriotism, disillusionment, honor, or something else. To help bring characters to life, good and bad, they need to have at least one thing that drives them, which can later on change, but ultimately helps bring the character to life as much as their individual personality traits.

You can begin with basic human emotions or desires and build them into one of many possibilities. As an example, if a character seeks knowledge, it could be knowledge of something or someone or oneself. It’s important for villains to have motivations as well as heroes. In Beowulf the titular hero seeks everlasting glory, while each of the monsters is driven by a dark desire: Grendel by envy (of the Danes celebrating, which links him to his Biblical ancestor, Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy), Grendel’s mother by anger (for the death of her son), and the dragon by greed (a single golden cup was stolen from his treasure hoard).

When characters are driven to commit crimes, they have simple motivations, which have different versions. Sometimes characters with similar motivations act differently upon them, or the other way around. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Danglars wants Edmond’s captaincy while Mondego wants Edmond’s fiancé. So they conspire to frame him for conspiring to help Napoleon Bonaparte. For Danglars it’s a crime of profit; for Mondego it’s one of passion. Villefort realizes there actually is a conspiracy to help the deposed emperor, not involving Edmond but his own father, which would hurt his political ambitions if revealed. So he has imprisoned Edmond without trial to protect himself. Edmond is therefore motivated to enact revenge upon them all.

Often motives can be influenced by characters’ backgrounds and circumstances. One well-known stereotype is the evil twin, who is the protagonist’s mirror image (though sometimes evil twins have facial hair or scars). But in many stories there are simply siblings—not necessarily twins—where one’s good and one’s evil. When the younger is evil, (s)he tends to be envious at not being the oldest and thus the heir. But when the older is evil (not to say (s)he can’t be jealous of the younger sibling), (s)he is proud of being the oldest and heir, to the point of narcissism and arrogance. When there’s more than one sibling, it can lead to middle child syndrome, where the second child feels unloved and/or like an outcast because the third is the “baby” and the first is the heir.

Then there’s the notion of a character foil: someone who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. Foils can be villains like evil twins, but they can be good too. They are similar in one or two ways to a protagonist but in every other way aren’t. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft shares his amazing power of deduction and more, but doesn’t use it to earn a living since, as Sherlock puts it, he lacks ambition and energy, and hates fieldwork.

As I said earlier, motivation can change, especially if a character isn’t sure at the start what drives him or her. Perhaps they are searching for what it is they want out of life. In every case, having motivation drives characters, and thus readers’ investment in them.

Further Reading
  1. Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters.
  2. Marie, Katie. Character motivations and why they are so important.

Happy Veterans Day! Many thanks to all who served!

18 thoughts on “Establishing Characters’ Motives

  1. I liked your example of The Count Of Monte Cristo. It’s a favorite of mine, for the very reason you included in your article. Dumas’ characters are easy for me to figure out, whether they are bad guys or good guys. They are simple, yet rich characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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