Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Motivation--the Foundation of Compelling Characters

As writers we need to know our characters inside and out. We need to know what makes them tick. It's called goal, motivation, and conflict. Today Ane Mulligan talks about the importance of one aspect of that knowledge--motivations. -- Sandy

Ane: For those who have read Debra Dixon's book GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict, I have come to the conclusion that Motivation is the most important. Motivation engages us. We can relate to character motivations. They form the foundation of characters that live on in our minds after the story ends.

Motivation leads to character arc. It’s the WHY of GMC. The Goal is the WHAT the character wants. Motivation is the WHY he wants it. If we provide strong motivation, our readers will follow our characters anywhere, through anything.

A character can behave reprehensibly, in a way we would normally condemn, but if the motivation is strong enough, we'll forgive the character and cheer him on. Motivation is what makes us empathize with the character. If it's important enough, the character won't be able to back away from it when the conflict gets rough.

Finding the deep, core motivation is imperative for great characters. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised when you discover that core motivation. It isn't always nice.

Too often in Christian fiction, our characters are too nice. If the core motivation is selfishness, but the character isn’t really a selfish person, allow that side to be seen in small ways. It makes a good character great. It makes them complex. We want our characters to be complex—deep—real, because that creates the basis for the character arc.

When I have a new protagonist, I use a Character Interview (CI). Mine contains way more than physical characteristics. I want to discover the lie she believes about herself and her deepest, darkest secret. I want to know her back-story. I want to know her parents’ back-story.  Her grandparents’ back-story.

Why? Because the way people are raised affects their view of themselves and their worldview. If I don’t know my character’s ancestors, I can’t know my character.

After I get a clue or two into the character from the CI, I write a stream-of-consciousness back-story. I’m always amazed at the secrets that come out when writing these. For one manuscript I’m working on, I went back four generations. I discovered why my characters acted the way they did. In other words, I found their core motivation.

I just finished teaching the ACFW online course on this subject, and I know I got under the skin of a few students by continually asking, “Why?” Too often, we list a goal—a what—as the motivation. You have to keep asking yourself why they want it, until you get down to the core motivation. Most of the time, it’s a single word—a basic, human emotion, a desire, a need. 

Once you know that, your character comes alive. You understand why she makes the decisions she does and why she reacts the way she does. Now her goals make sense. And now she’s on her way to becoming unforgettable.

Have you spent time asking your characters why? What answer has surprised you the most in doing so? Did you find your character had a motive that reflected badly on themselves? Share your thoughts about character motivation.


Sr. Editor of the award-winning literary site, Novel Rocket, Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, she's worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that's a fancy name for a lobbyist), business manager, drama director and writer. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). A three-time Genesis finalist, Ane is a published playwright and columnist. She resides in Suwanee, GA, with her artist husband and two very large dogs.


  1. Thanks, Ane. A very informative post.

    In the past, I've given a character a motivation for the goal he has, but it's been a "surface" motivation. I bought Susan May Warren's Book Buddy and got to the part in the character interview where she says, "Keep asking 'Why?' until you get to their motivations and values." What an eye-opener! I got down to the nitty-gritty of my hero's past and the inner drive that made him want what he wanted at that time.

    Ex.: He wants a raise BECAUSE he hasn't had one in two years.


    He wants a raise BECAUSE his mother abandoned the family when his father failed to provide the things she wanted, and when his wife begins complaining about their finances, he becomes scared to death of repeating his father's misfortune. (That wasn't from my story, but...hmmm...)

  2. That's exactly it, Sandra. And sometimes it's hard to separate goals from motivations. That's why I look first for the lie the character believes and to find that, I do the stream of consciousness backstory. THen you can get down to core motivations.

    Karen Ball taught a great class on core motivation at the last ACFW conference. It was also an eye-opener. But - with those motivations, readers will follow our characters because they'll relate to them. :)

  3. Ane, this post came at the perfect time! I'm in the middle of digging deep into my characters' motivations.

    One way I keep asking "why" is to write out the GMC, and then push down to a deeper layer, and another, until I get to the GMC the character himself doesn't even realize. That's the motivation that really determines his actions, and that's what he discovers through the course of the story.

    And I loved Karen Ball's class (listened to the MP3 version). It was wonderful.

  4. That's the way you do it, Jan. I've found so many amazing secrets that way. :)

  5. Ane, what a terrific post full of wonderful reminders.And I love your remark that sometimes, Christian fiction characters are too nice. I like them when they're "regular" people, people of faith who nonetheless who experience doubts and fear and even anger at God.

    I think the CI is a marvelous, helpful method that I don't use nearly enough.

    1. Thanks, Tanya. I used to hate the CI, but now I'm loving it. I've learned so many secrets about my characters through it, that now I won't do without it. Even for the secondary characters. Only the quick walk-on won't have one. :)

  6. Ane said: A character can behave reprehensibly, in a way we would normally condemn, but if the motivation is strong enough, we'll forgive the character and cheer him on.

    This is so true! I was a little wary about having my hero lie, but time after time, readers told me they forgave him because they knew what drove him to do it.

    So interesting! Thanks for an insightful article.

    1. Hey, Lisa! I learned a bunch of this from you, so thanks for stopping by. ;o)


We'd love to hear your thoughts! Please leave comments. We'll moderate and post them!