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50 Character Motivation Examples and Tips for Writing

character motivation

If you’re looking to craft realistic and relatable characters, then you’ll need to get familiar with character motivation. Understanding what drives each character, and the difference between a character goal and a character motivation, is vital for creating character complexity and depth.

And that brings me nicely to…

What Is Character Motivation?

Character motivation is a tricky beast, and it can be a hard concept to grasp, but we’re going to break it down together. By the time we’re finished, you’ll be an expert in character motivation, and you’ll know how to use it to write realistic, relatable characters readers love.

When I started taking writing seriously in 2019, I always got confused between a character goal and a character motivation. On the surface, they look the same, but they are subtly different.

And you need to know this difference before you can employ character motivation effectively.

Here’s the difference:

  • A character goal (or POV Goal, as it’s known in Fictionary-land) is what a character is pursuing.
  • Character motivation is the why behind the character’s action.

So, when you want to get to the heart of what motivates your characters to do the things they need to do, ask yourself, why does my character want to achieve this goal?

Once you know that, you’ll understand their motivation.

And remember, two characters in a novel can chase the same goal but want it for different reasons.

We’ll be looking at The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins later on because Katniss and Kato are prime examples of two characters who want the same thing for very different reasons. They both want to win The Hunger Games (goal). Kato wants the win for the fame, glory, and prestige it brings. Katniss wants the win so she can survive and protect her family.

You’ll agree that glory and survival are vastly different whys.

Here’s a template for working out what a character’s motivation is:

My character wants [POV GOAL] because ____________________.

Fill in that because, and you’ve got your character’s motivation.

But, Shane, you say, while scratching your head. What’s the point of finding my characters’ whys?

That, my friend, is a fantastic question.

The what (the goal) is important, because characters who don’t pursue goals are boring. But the why… the why is vital to great storytelling. The why speaks to who your character is. Let’s return to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Her why is so strong that it informs every single move she makes.

Whether her goal in a particular scene is to escape the cornucopia, hide from the career tributes, find water, form an alliance, or even pursue her romantic connection with Peeta, her need to survive (her why) drives every decision she makes.

The why adds a layer of depth to your characters the what doesn’t, and it’s this why that resonates with readers.

Without a clear why, you can’t fully develop your characters.

Definition of Character Motives

Motivation is a motivating force, stimulus, or influence. And we know that a character is a person who appears in a novel. So, character motivation is a motivating force, stimulus, or influence that drives a character to do something.

It’s their why.

what is character motivation

The Two Types of Character Motivation

Before we look at some examples of common character motivations, we need to examine the two categories of motivation. These two types both resonate with readers because humans are also motivated in this way.

The two kinds of character motivation are:

  • External Character Motivation: When an external pressure (be that a person, a circumstance, or an event) motivates your character to act upon their goal.
  • Internal Character Motivation: When the motivation to act on a goal comes from inside your character themselves.

Now you know what character motivation is and understand the nuance between external and internal character motivations, let’s get to the literary meat and potatoes. Let’s look at examples of external and internal character motivations, and why they’re so gosh-darn interesting.

NOTE: This list is not exhaustive, but it’ll give you a fantastic starting point when seeking inspiration for your novels.

External Character Motivation Examples

  • Wealth: Characters driven by the desire for financial success often face ethical dilemmas and conflicts, making their journey interesting.
  • Power: The quest for control and influence can lead to intense conflicts and dramatic power struggles.
  • Revenge: A powerful motivator that creates high stakes and deep emotional investment for the reader.
  • Survival: Characters motivated by the need to stay alive engage readers through their primal, relatable struggles.
  • Recognition: The pursuit of fame or acknowledgment drives characters to extraordinary lengths, creating dramatic tension.
  • External Freedom: The desire to escape physical oppression or confinement provides a strong, relatable conflict.
  • Justice: Seeking to right wrongs can create morally complex situations and drive the plot forward.
  • Love: The quest for romantic or familial love adds emotional depth and high stakes to the narrative.
  • Family: Protecting or providing for family members offers a powerful and relatable motivation.
  • Adventure: The desire for new experiences and excitement keeps the plot dynamic and engaging.
  • Duty: A sense of obligation to a cause or community can lead characters into challenging and dramatic situations.
  • Escape: The need to flee from danger or a stifling situation creates immediate tension and conflict.
  • Curiosity: Characters driven by the need to know more can uncover secrets that propel the plot.
  • Honor: Upholding personal or familial honor can lead to dramatic sacrifices and moral dilemmas.
  • Vengeance: The pursuit of retribution provides a powerful driving force for your character and breathtaking conflict.
  • Protection: Defending loved ones or innocent people adds a layer of heroism and urgency.
  • Success: The drive to achieve goals, whether professional or personal, creates relatable and interesting challenges.
  • Belonging: The quest to find one’s place in the world resonates deeply with readers because the desire to belong motivates most of us.
  • Security: Seeking safety and stability in an unstable world can be a powerful motivator.
  • Legacy: The desire to leave a lasting impact and for people to remember us provides characters with long-term goals and conflicts.
  • Rebellion: The desire to overthrow an oppressive system or authority adds conflict and tension.
  • Quest for Truth: Characters motivated by uncovering the truth drive investigative and revealing plotlines.
  • Social Status: The pursuit of higher social standing creates drama and interpersonal conflict.
  • Reunion: The drive to reunite with lost loved ones provides emotional stakes and urgency.
  • External Healing: Seeking physical healing can create personal and external conflicts that engage readers.

external character motivation

Internal Character Motivation Examples

  • Self-Acceptance: Characters striving to accept themselves often undergo significant personal growth, resonating with readers.
  • Guilt: The need to atone for past actions drives characters to seek redemption, creating deep emotional narratives.
  • Fear: Overcoming internal fears provides the perfect breeding ground for character development and tension.
  • Ambition: Personal ambition can lead to complex character arcs involving ethical dilemmas and personal sacrifices.
  • Identity: The quest to understand oneself drives introspective and transformative character journeys.
  • Desire for Change: Characters seeking personal transformation offer relatable and inspiring stories.
  • Inner Peace: The pursuit of emotional or spiritual peace provides depth and introspection.
  • Love: Internal desires for connection and intimacy drive characters to open up and grow.
  • Validation: Seeking internal approval or self-worth drives characters through relatable struggles.
  • Curiosity: A deep internal need to understand the world leads characters on intellectual and emotional journeys.
  • Forgiveness: The need to forgive oneself or others fosters powerful emotional arcs.
  • Strength: The pursuit of internal strength and resilience offers inspiring narratives.
  • Wisdom: Characters seeking knowledge and understanding add depth to their journeys.
  • Internal Freedom: The desire for personal liberation from internal constraints, whether mental, emotional, or spiritual, creates interesting character growth.
  • Happiness: The quest for personal joy and fulfillment drives relatable and uplifting stories.
  • Faith: Exploring and affirming personal beliefs adds a layer of spiritual depth.
  • Courage: Characters finding the courage to face their fears create powerful and inspiring narratives.
  • Self-Worth: The journey to recognize and embrace one’s own value resonates deeply with readers.
  • Hope: Maintaining or rediscovering hope against all odds drives emotionally impactful stories.
  • Empathy: Developing a deeper understanding and connection to others fosters growth and transformation.
  • Personal Redemption: Characters seeking to redeem themselves from past mistakes provide interesting growth arcs.
  • Creativity: The drive to create art, literature, or music fosters rich, imaginative storytelling.
  • Moral Integrity: The need to align actions with personal morals adds depth to character decisions.
  • Reconciliation: The internal drive to reconcile with estranged family or friends offers emotionally resonant narratives.
  • Acceptance: The pursuit of acceptance from oneself or from others drives characters to confront their own biases and grow.

internal character motivation

Motivations for Character Examples from Literature

Now you know what character motivation is, and we’ve looked at some general examples you can take inspiration from, let’s look at some bestselling novels to see how authors at the top of their game used these motivations to create books readers fell in love with.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Genre: YA Dystopian)

Skeleton Blurb

Katniss Everdeen must win The Hunger Games, otherwise she will die, and The Capitol will kill her family and friends.

External Motivation: Survival

Katniss’s why behind wanting to win The Hunger Games is survival. As I said before, the need to survive drives every decision she makes.

Internal Motivation: Family

Katniss only has to compete in The Hunger Games because she volunteered to take her little sister’s place at The Reaping. And she’s only so hellbent on winning the competition because she promised Prim she would try her hardest. Let’s not forget that, prior to the games, Katniss had been providing for her family ever since her father’s death in a mine explosion.

The Innocent by David Baldacci (Genre: Action Thriller)

Skeleton Blurb

Will Robie must uncover the conspiracy and clear his name, otherwise the people who framed him will kill him.

External Motivation: Justice

Someone frames Robie for murder, and, as a hitman who targets the worst of the worst, he has a strong (if warped) sense of justice. He’s only trying to clear his name to get justice for the wrongs done to him.

Internal Motivation: Redemption

Although Robie became a hitman to deliver justice, his past actions are an anchor around his neck. Throughout the course of the novel, Robie protects a teenage girl, in the hopes it will go some way to making amends.

The Martian by Andy Weir (Genre: Hard Science Fiction)

Skeleton Blurb

Mark Watney must survive on Mars, otherwise he will perish alone on the hostile planet.

External Motivation: Survival

Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, Mark’s why is survival. As soon as he’s stranded on Mars, all his daily activities revolve around survival, like figuring out a way to grow his own crops. He believes if he can hang on long enough, someone will send a crew to rescue him.

Internal Motivation: Hope

Mark has no way of knowing whether someone will send a crew to save him, but he hopes they will.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab (Genre: Contemporary Fantasy)

Skeleton Blurb

Victor Vale must exact revenge on Eli Ever, otherwise Eli’s betrayal will consume him, and he’ll lose his chance at redemption.

External Motivation: Revenge

Victor’s best friend, Eli, betrayed him, resulting in them both receiving superpowers. And Victor’s motive every time he uses his powers is exacting vengeance on Eli.

Internal Motivation: Identity

Victor’s internal struggle throughout the book centers on working out who he is now he’s an EO (Extra-Ordinary). He constantly battles the darker side of his nature, made worse by the effects of his powers, which he wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Eli.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (Genre: Romantic Comedy)

Skeleton Blurb

Bridget Jones must find love and self-acceptance, otherwise she will continue to struggle with self-doubt and societal pressures.

External Motivation: Love

Feilding opens the novel with a list of things Bridget wants to achieve throughout the year. Her primary goal, explicity stated in these opening pages, is to find love.

Internal Motivation: Self-Acceptance

Bridget’s struggles are all related to her perceived inadequacies. She worries about her weight, her drinking, her smoking habit, her lack of a boyfriend, and her lack of an actual career. Bridget doesn’t accept herself, and this is what she needs to do by the end of the novel if she’s going to grow as a character.

Tips for Writing Character Motives

  • Understand Your Character’s Background: Knowing your character’s history and experiences helps create realistic and interesting motivations.
  • Align Motives with the Plot: Ensure your character’s motivations drive the plot forward and create meaningful conflict.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Reveal your character’s motives through actions, decisions, and dialogue rather than exposition.
  • Use External and Internal Motivations: Combine external goals with internal desires to create complex and relatable characters.
  • Keep Motivations Consistent: Ensure your character’s motivations remain consistent throughout the story to maintain believability.
  • Strengthen Motivations: Allow your character’s motivations to strengthen as they grow and change throughout the story.
  • Create High Stakes: Make sure the consequences of failing to achieve their motivations are significant to add tension and urgency.
  • Use Secondary Characters: Develop secondary characters that challenge or support your protagonist’s motivations, adding depth to the story.
  • Add Conflict with Other Characters: Introduce characters with opposing motivations to create conflict and drive the narrative.
  • Reflect Real Human Desires: Base your character’s motivations on universal human desires, such as love, fear, ambition, and redemption, to make them relatable.

Want to know how the Fictionary Software can help you develop your character motivations?

It all comes down to the POV Goal story element. As you edit each scene in your novel, you need to ensure the Point of View Character has a clear POV Goal in every scene and that the Goal is Related to the Plot. There are spaces in the Fictionary Software for you to do just that.

And, as we covered earlier, once you know what your POV Character’s Goal is, you can work out why they want to achieve that goal.

Happy writing, Fictionarians!

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