Why Do Your Characters Do What They Do? — (Developing Motivations that Thicken the Plot and Deepen Your Characters)

I’d like to continue my ramblings on stakes and characterization. This time focused on your character’s wants, or their motivations for what they are doing.

indexIt can be real easy to just sort of let things happen to your characters, or let them just do stuff. I tend to think of action that occurs before I know why it’s happening. I did this quite a bit in my first novel. Often as I went I would discover why, and would go back and add something in the subsequent draft.

I think this was an okay way to do it. I think there is always an element of discovery to actually writing no matter how much you plot it out, on paper or in your head, before you write the scene. But it also might be less efficient. You don’t want to overthink it too much on the first go, but anytime a character is doing anything, you should be thinking about what motivates them. Period.

That is where a lot of tension comes from. So don’t cheat yourself.


For Example:

If you’ve a civilian ex-priest character in a crime thriller, one who is determined to help catch a sex trafficker and rescue one of the girls — so much so that he is involving himself in the police investigation and perhaps even becoming a nuisance — then there has got to be a reason. What got him involved in the first place? What motivates him to care about sex trafficking? Or this particular girl?

Don’t settle for pure moralist motivations either with this sort of thing. It is pretty boring, and not very realistic in this case for why someone would go out of their way like that. You can create a lot more depth by something more detailed. Perhaps your ex-priest was molested, or his sister ran away long ago and was trafficked. Tragic motivations, in a case like this will probably be more compelling and offer more tension.

What would make it even better would be something like this: Perhaps this priest’s sister told him she was going to run away, and out of his conflicted love for his sister, he didn’t tell mom and dad. So sister runs away. She is thrown into the sex trade against her will. Years later her body is found. And the priest has spent his life trying to make up for his mistake the night his sister ran away. Perhaps that is why he became a priest, which he couldn’t even do right. And this girl represents his sister. To save her and catch the bad guy is like rewinding history and stopping his sister from running away…

Those are much more interesting motivations. It makes this priest very complex. Rather than a stock good guy trying to stop the bad guys.

The Wants and What Stands in the Way

All characters want something, and there is something standing in the way of what they want. Often there are deep wants behind the physically evident wants. Our hypothetical priest wants to stop the bad guys and save this prostitute on the outside. On the inside, whether he knows it or not, he is trying to redeem his past mistakes. The harder hitting, the more important, the desire of your character, the more is at stake. The more that stands in the way, the more tension, and the more we care about the outcome.

interstellar-mcconaugheyIn the film, Interstellar, love is the motivating factor for McConaughey’s character, Cooper, to discover a new world and return to Earth and be reunited with his daughter, Murph. But Christopher Nolan didn’t settle with just love. Father and daughter love becomes complex when Murph refuses to talk to him before he leaves. Years of space travel go by and still she will not speak to him. Then the situation is compounded when gravity on another planet speeds up time so that years and years have gone by on Earth in what was mere minutes on that planet. It is not just love, but guilt over their last interaction, and restoration of their once close bond over the course of lifetimes by the end of the film. It is intense.

Not Deep Enough Motivations?… Change Things

The main character of my last novel , Taylor, is on a mission to find her mother. Originally that was the extent of her motivation: her love for her mother. That’s not bad. Love is a great thing. But as I am preparing to write a new draft of the novel, I realized that I wasn’t providing enough tension there. Originally, the event that killed Taylor’s sister and made her mother go missing occurred while she was out with her father. But then I thought: What if she was there when her sister died? What if Taylor got away, and she feels guilty for running, and being the one survivor? So when she discovers her mother might still be alive, her determination to find her bears even more weight.


So let the reader discover these motivations slowly. But you must know the entire time. If you don’t know, then the book is not done yet. You may figure it out in the first draft, or the fourth like with my last novel.

But don’t settle for the character desires at the surface, find out what motivates them deep within, and if it’s not big enough then change things around. Make things more intense.

This inner turmoil will keep us turning those pages. And it will make for a much better book.

Published by s.a.klopfenstein

I write epic fantasy novels, and I sometimes write a few blogs, mostly concerning what I am learning about writing and my own publishing journey.

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