8 Ways To Uncover Your Character’s Motivations

8 Ways To Uncover Your Character’s Motivations

In this post, we look at how you can better understand your main character – and their motivations. We give you eight compelling questions to answer about your protagonist.

The insights will help you create a more realistic and memorable character. We also share fun exercises for you to try!

Make Me Believe 

We all know that characters drive story. As writers, we strive to create memorable characters. Readers, long after they have forgotten a plot of a story or novel, remember the characters.

And for characters to live on the page, their actions must be believable. In building their psychology and backstory, we provide them with plausible motivations.

  1. The character seeking freedom must overcome their fears.
  2. The character looking for a relationship must take risks in love.
  3. The character determined to change their circumstances must be disciplined.
  4. The character pursuing justice must be brave and determined.
  5. The character searching for redemption must face the pain they have caused.

Meet Mr Nice 

Imagine you’re creating a character called Frank. Polite. Respectable. Middle-class and middle age. Frank is the nice guy, you decide, and you want to use him in your next short story.

Despite his name, or maybe because of it, Frank cannot ever be completely honest – least of all with himself. It’s a flaw that will no doubt cause conflict with others. It’s that subtle conflict or dramatic conflict that you’re after as a writer.

Because ‘nice’ doesn’t make for great storytelling.

In this scenario you’re planning, Frank can’t bring himself to tell his wife that he doesn’t love her anymore. The problem is that their twenty-year wedding anniversary is fast coming up, and she is planning a big party with friends and family.

What Would Frank Do?

So, what would Frank do? As a writer, you have a few options to explore.

  1. Frank does nothing (or very little).

He passively accepts endures the party and inevitable well-wishes, and keeps his misery to himself. The time to make a change has passed and he remains ‘stuck’ in the marriage.

  1. Frank does the wrong thing (spectacularly).

He acts out on the morning of the party. Instead of fetching the cake from the bakery, he goes to a bar and gets drunk. Instead of a dignified speech, he makes a bad joke and falls in the swimming pool.

  1. Frank does the right thing (sort of).

Even though the timing is off, he sits his wife down and tells her how he feels. He wants out of the marriage. He will play his role of doting husband at the party but, after a respectable period, he wants a divorce.

Conflict And Consequence

As you can see, if Frank does nothing, he doesn’t achieve his goal of leaving his marriage. But you can make a thematic point out of his hidden misery: time traps us to lives we don’t want.

If he does the wrong thing, Frank may still not get what he wants. His wife may leave him, she may be angry with him, or she could bring him black coffee, aspirin, and dry clothes. But, Frank losing control sure makes for a better story!

The theme could be about how we face our problems in destructive ways. While strangely cathartic, acting out doesn’t solve anything in the end.

If Frank does the right thing – even if it is delayed – he gets what he wants. You will struggle to fill more than a few pages without any obvious conflict, but he will achieve his goal. The theme may be insipid but you’ll make your point: it’s always better to do the right thing.

Read 6 Backstory Secrets

How To Understand Your Character’s Motivations

Which path will you chose? This is, of course, up to you as a writer. To follow the right plot, you must understand Frank’s motivation. Why can’t he be honest?

  1. Maybe he was brought up to always be polite. To tell the truth was to hurt other people’s feeling. It wasn’t ‘nice’.
  2. Maybe he believes that if he does tell the truth, the situation might spin out of control. He fears the uncertainty, he is scared of the fallout.
  3. Maybe if he tells the truth, he will have to take an action and responsibility for that action. It’s less risky to upset the status quo.

The motivation you choose must be the most human. It must be universal.

Will others relate to it? Will we see our own weaknesses and fears in this character? Will we identify with the character’s struggle? Will the conflict mirror similar situations in our own lives and relationships?

These are all good questions you need to ask as an author creating a new character. You don’t need to lay out explicitly on the page, but you do need to understand it in your own mind.

Read 12 Point Checklist For Your Story Goal

8 Ways To Uncover Your Character’s Motivations

8 Questions Every Author Should Ask About Their Main Character

If you’re writing a story, novel, or screenplay, take a few moments to focus on your main character.

Write out the answers to each of these questions.

  1. How honest are they? Do they tell harmless lies or do they lie compulsively? How do they feel when they lie? What’s the worst lie they’ve ever told? How do they deal with dishonesty in others (especially loved ones)? Do other people trust them?
  2. How dependable are they? Do they do what they say they will do? Do they show up late or early for important events? Would someone rely on them in a crisis?
  3. How capable are they? Are they good at what they do? Does success elude them? Are they naturally competent and clever? Do they put in the time and effort to make the most of their talents and skills?
  4. How much empathy do they have? Are they kind to others, even when they don’t have to? Do they show compassion, forgiveness and tolerance? Or are they afraid of their own emotions? Are they indifferent or disdainful of those they deem inferior?
  5. Do they own up to their mistakes? Are they able to take the blame when they mess up? Can they see the part they played in a misunderstanding or argument? Or are they defensive, rigid, and stubborn?
  6. Do they persevere in the face of adversity? How resilient and consistent are they? Do they stay the course – or give up at the first hurdle? Do they believe in themselves and the goals and commitments they’ve made?
  7. How humble are they? Are they modest about their accomplishments – or outright braggarts? Do they allow others to shine or must they be the centre of attention?
  8. Can they control their anger? How much self control do they have? Are they prone to outbursts, or are they able to manage their emotions? What happens when they get upset? Can they accept when things don’t go their own way? What drives their anger?

Read The Big 5 Personality Traits

Get Creative

If you’re still struggling to understand how your character may behave or want to delve deeper into their motivations, try these exercises.

  1. Twitter Test

Your character has seen something on social media they find offensive or incorrect. Write out their short Tweet.

  1. Found In The Street

Your character has found a wallet in the street. Inside is a stack of money. What do they do? 

  1. Pillar Of The Community

Your character has won a community award, which the Mayor will hand over at a city ceremony. Write out their acceptance speech.

  1. The Leaky Tap

Your character has neglected to fix a leaking tap in the bathroom. When their partner or spouse confronts them about this, what do they say? Write the scene as dialogue.

  1. Red Lights

Your character is stopped behind another vehicle at a red traffic light. The light turns green, but the car in front doesn’t move. What do they do?

Buy How To Write A Short Story

The Last Word

‘What would my character do?’ When faced with a problem or a difficult situation in your story, this is always a good question to ask yourself.

The only way to answer it is to know your character better than yourself. Eventually you’ll get to the point where they will answer the question for you!

anthony ehlers

By Anthony Ehlers. Anthony Ehlers facilitates courses for Writers Write. He writes awesome blog posts and workbooks too.

More Posts From Anthony:

  1. Which Way North? 5 Methods To Outline A Novel
  2. Writer In Search Of A Novel – Finding Your Genre As A New Novelist
  3. Writing For Tweens & Teens? 8 Insights For Middle Grade & Young Adult Authors
  4. Ready To Save The Cat?
  5. 5 Simple Steps To Writing A Short Story
  6. 2 Questions To Find Your Writing Process
  7. 11 Popular Sub-Genres In Fantasy Romance
  8. Write Your Synopsis Without Losing The Essence Of Your Story
  9. 6 Mistakes Screenwriters Make
  10. 12 Point Checklist For Your Story Goal

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 22nd September 2022