Character Motivation

Character motivation is a key component to strong storytelling and roleplaying. In other words, what a character wants and why they want it are essential to making sense of a story. Someone — your character — needs to care, and they need to care deeply and passionately! This page is full of ideas to help you dig into motivations for your characters.

A character’s motivation is their prime reason for doing something. Sometimes we read a story and we’re left unsatisfied because it didn’t seem like the characters cared much for what was happening. This is disappointing. So in your narrative you want to ensure that your characters have powerful reasons for their choices and actions.

Solid characters are believably committed to their causes and feel deep emotional satisfaction upon accomplishment of their goals or they’re wholly regretful after failure. Weak characters do stuff without any real reason, drive, or obligation.

Essentially, good motivation turns any story into a character vs. self story. This means that the character is fighting an internal moral battle, deliberating over choice and consequence, right and wrong, promises fulfilled and oaths broken. That kind of inner turmoil only happens when characters are deeply motivated. And that’s the thing that makes story matter most amidst all the action, comedy, movement, dialogue, fight, flight, and fright!

To help you figure out why your characters do what they do, we’ve put together some lists of ideas for you to peruse below.  You can also check out our CONFLICT page for more ideas about what might confront your characters, or explore your character’s backstory to generate a source for their motivation. Let us know in the comments if you find something useful here or if you want to share an idea that may be helpful to others.

How might Character Motivation manifest in your story?

  • love, passion, lust, puppy love, infatuation, crush, desire, obsession,
  • duty, honour, pride, an oath sworn, a promise made,
  • money, cash, riches, fortune, greed, avarice,
  • fame, notoriety, recognition,
  • an urge, a need, a drive, a desire, a force, an impulse, yearning,
  • tradition, the old ways, custom, family duty, age-old practice, ceremony, ritual, annual rite,
  • return to the old ways, reversion,
  • rite of passage, entering “manhood”, passage, ritual, tradition,
  • follow in father’s footsteps, family expectation, parents’ honour,
  • religion, belief, value, morality, ethics,
  • instinct, gut instinct, a feeling,
  • spite, bitterness, anger, jealousy, envy, vengeance, hate, bile,
  • confidence, pride, self awareness,
  • “I’ll show them” attitude, get back at someone,
  • overconfidence, brashness, impetuosity, rashness, bullheadedness, impulsiveness, “bragging rights,”
  • phobia, fear, anxiety,
  • curiosity, wonder, adventure-lust,
  • in panic, terror, mania, berserk,
  • as a joke, prank, trick, ruse, diversion, the ol’ switcheroo,
  • to prove something,
  • love, fear, hate, longing,
  • duty, honor, allegiance, law, order, pride, blind ambition
  • envy, jealousy, covetousness,
  • gluttony, avarice, greed, rapacity, acquisitiveness,
  • materialism, cupidity, money-lust,
  • ambition, power, control, dominion, superiority, supremacy
  • lust, passion, desire, crush, longing, pining, yearning, need,
  • laziness, sloth,
  • for a prize, competition, to be the best, winning, to get a medal, earn a ribbon,
  • gain ranks, level up, attain mastery, rise up in the hierarchy, get knighted,
  • to impress: the king or queen, a lover, the one you’re courting, your father or mother, the admiralty, command, the ruler, the boss, your ex,
  • angst, depression, melancholy,
  • self-loathing, self doubt,
  • impotence, hopelessness, sloth, carelessness,
  • anxiety, fear, nervousness,
  • promises, atonement,
  • loss, regret, remorse
  • vice, compulsion, addiction, obsession,
  • truth, justification, righteousness,
  • anger, wrath, hatred, chaos,
  • vengeance, revenge, pay back, eye for an eye, “justice,” vigilantism,
  • making up, restitution, correction,
  • rebirth, renewal, wash away sins,
  • destruction, annihilation, eradication, removal,
  • addiction, craving,
  • get rich, fame, fortune, make a name for oneself,
  • bad memories, tortured past, lost years,
  • forces beyond one’s control, unspeakable force, unnameable force, (see FORCE CONCEPTS)
  • dedication, stout-heartedness, solemnity, steadfastness,
  • possession, alternate personality, evil twin,
  • memories, flashbacks, reversion,
  • ancestral messages, genetics, inherited impulse, a tickling from the fingers of time,
  • psychic experience, otherworldly directions, alien influences,
  • ghostly urging, ethereal prompting, whispers on the wind,
  • madness, insanity, delusion, psychosis,

Depths of Character Motivation

  • honest, pure, good, angelic,
  • innocent, naive,
  • deep set, unflappable, stoic, stalwart,
  • cursory, superficial, minor, flighty, flakey, of the moment,
  • honorable,
  • unrealistic, idealistic, lofty,
  • optimistic, opportunistic, optional,
  • pessimistic, doubtful, hopeless, fretting, thin,
  • iconic, quintessential, archetypal,
  • dark, vile, terrible, evil, demonic,
  • personal, individual, unique, one-of-a-kind,
  • pompous, bombastic, pretentious, ostentatious…. but actually just greedy (or something less honourable),
  • driving, indefatigable, tireless, unrelenting, pounding, unflagging,
  • weak, thin,
  • sardonic, ironic, facetious, mocking, sarcastic, wry,
  • angry, cantankerous, morose, burning, festering, burr in the saddle,
  • rising, growing, fermenting, fomenting,
  • chemically induced, delusional, hypnotic, charmed, cursed, possessed, robotic,
  • fake, deceptive, superficial, illusory,

Notes and Ideas on Motivation

  • a character who has promised something automatically has a motivation to fulfill that promise. Consider how desperately they want to be true and what they’re willing to do to make it happen. If they fail, what is their downfall, remorse, guilt? This can actually serve the purpose of good character backstory. If they outright lied when making the promise. consider their motivation for lying as that can be a huge driver for your story.
  • two characters with opposing motivations are categorically “antagonists.” They are against each other. Set up a hero-villain archetypal story by choosing two opposing motivations (ie. destroy the world vs. save the world). See Force Concepts for some ideas on opposing forces.

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