When I was a teenager, I used to cut out pictures from magazines and comics and post them around my room. Usually it was stuff like Batman or Wonder Woman or NSYNC, but occasionally it would just be an ad I liked. One image in particular has stuck with me. There’s a male model giving someone an incredulous look. He sits on a box and the text above his head says “What’s my motivation here?” It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would understand that phrase, I just thought the model was good looking.
Like many writers, I dabbled in high school theater. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly great actor. I could sing and I’ve always loved to pretend I was other people, but my interest in acting was more about loving characters than being on stage. Motivation is something that’s talked about a lot in when you act. Your character needs motivation to cross a room, to pick up the phone, to say something. They don’t do anything without motivation.
And that? Has helped me a lot as I realized I preferred creating the characters over acting them out.
Every character in your story has to want something. That’s art imitating reality, every person you meets want something. It might be something small, like a turkey sandwich, or something big, like taking over the world. They have to want it and as the author, it’s your job to put things in their way as they try to get it. It’s often good to have a character with an internal motivation that is completely at odds with an external motivation.
Ally wants to be loved, but Ally lives in a dystopian society where love gets you killed. Ally also wants to survive.
And tada! Conflict.
If you don’t know what your character wants, just ask them. Have a dialogue in your head, or on a piece of paper, and ask them what they want. You can take small needs and find ways to make them bigger and put other needs in direct opposition of them.
This also may help as you are revising a story. If something feels off, or if the character feels off, look at what the characters in that scene want. You might find that what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually match their motivations. It’s a lot easier to fix something once you know why it’s broken.
What about you? Do you have any tips and tricks for figuring out what your characters want? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.