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Five Things That Writers Get Wrong About Character Motivation

I was recently listening to a writing podcast on character motivation in which one of the participants attempted to critique the (excellent) Priory of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. Despite being only a handful of chapters into a book that is nearly 850 pages long, the speaker had strong opinions about the motivations of one of the characters. Wrong opinions. And what happens when someone is wrong on the internet? You blog about it, of course. The following list consists of some of the more egregious misconceptions about character development, and particularly motivation, that I have seen from fellow writers.

  1. Characters must start at a low place

What is true about characters is that they must change over the course of the narrative, but there is no rule that says that the change must be growth. A character who starts off the story at their peak literally has nowhere to go but down. The podcast I mentioned used Tane from Priory of the Orange Tree as an example — her character wants to be a dragon rider and at the start of the story she is poised to get what she wants. The podcaster assumed, incorrectly, that this would lead to a bland narrative where the character who is at her peak remains there, at her peak, nothing left to achieve. However, if her motivation is to be a dragonrider and she achieves that within the first few chapters, clearly she’s being set up for a fall, which is, in fact, what happens in Priory. Shortly upon gaining what she so desired, Tane loses almost everything. But this doesn’t make her less interesting, it makes her story more compelling. In fact, writing a character who has nowhere to go but down can sometimes be even more satisfying that writing a character who has to work their way out of a bad situation. People who have it all are not used to losing, so if you want to throw your character out of their comfort zone, let them fail. Give them everything, and then take it away and see how they react. The result is unlikely to be a boring narrative.

  1. Characters must always be in control

A lot of fuss is made about agency, and yes, it is true that it is generally more interesting to see a character actively make decisions than it is to see a character pushed around by the plot. That said, there are times when it is alright to have external factors act upon your character. In particular, if your character is the type of person who is always in control, taking away that control can lead to very interesting challenges. In my current manuscript I recently made a change in which I actually took away my character’s agency in one specific instance (instead of her making a rather unrealistic decision to go somewhere, I decided that she would be sent to said place) and the decision was absolutely better for the story. Sending her ironed out some pesky plot holes, but also gave her something to push back against.

  1. A character’s motivation is static

As your character changes, it is natural that their goals and motivations might change too. The character who wanted nothing more than to join the elite guard might get what she wants only to discover that the elite guard is awful, at which point she decides to change the elite guard from within. Your characters motivations can change, but what are less likely to change are your character’s core values. Jude, in The Folk of the Air series, throughout the series places tremendous value on the idea of home and belonging. This core value shapes her immediate motivations, which change throughout the series. Redemption arcs in particular can highlight a character’s shifting motivations, and sometimes even shifting values. Think about Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose initial motivation is to hunt down the Avatar in order to end his exile, but who ultimately teams up with the Avatar to end the tyranny of his own people. So just as your character grows and changes, remember that their motivations will change along with them.

  1. Only young people have goals

Young protagonists are particularly common in fantasy, but it is important to remember that your older characters can have their own motivations as well, and those motivations do not always have to be centered on the younger characters. In fact, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will feel an urgency surrounding the things that motivate them. As a forty year old, I my motivation to write is stronger than it was when I was a twenty year old and felt I had plenty of time left to do things. Remember that you can have older characters that function as more than just mentors for the younger ones. And while we’re at it, it’s perfectly fine to write a main character who is older than twenty five. Older characters can have adventures too, and sometimes you might even find that it is easier to have a mature character make mature decisions than having to justify why a teenager is acting like they’re thirty five.

  1. Motivations must be altruistic in nature

While fantasy generally deals in high stakes, characters do not always have to be motivated to save the world or the kingdom out of their innate sense of justice and righteousness. Characters can be motivated in smaller, more personal ways. Perhaps the character wants to save the kingdom not because it’s the heroic thing to do, but because it’s the only place that has ever felt like home and they cannot bear the idea of losing it. Perhaps the character wants to save the world because they can’t stand the idea of their loved ones dying. Most of us can relate to more intimate motivations in ways that we don’t necessarily relate to entirely altruistic motivations. It is alright if your character is not entirely altruistic, and selfish motivations can be just as valid reasons for your characters to act as selfless ones are.

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