A Quick Reminder About Motivation

Motivation is how you convey why a character is doing what they’re doing. I go into great detail about it in my upcoming book, WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT, which comes out in late October/early November. But it all boils down to this, and if you want to write this on a Post It for your computer monitor, that might not be a bad idea:

I don’t care about what a character is doing until I know why they’re doing it.

All reader investment and emotion comes from caring. All character emotion comes from the events of the plot and how they rub up against their motivations, objectives, wants, and needs. If you don’t put any thought into the latter elements–or if you don’t work to convey those to the reader–nobody will care or feel anything.

And feeling is the biggest thing you want to inspire in your audience.

7 Replies to “A Quick Reminder About Motivation”

  1. I might add that you don’t have to tell why a character is doing something; you just have to know why yourself. The reader might get to figure it out later.

  2. I don’t know what to say other than: Amen!

    A while ago you commented on some of my writing. After a cute description of a girl trying hard not to smile you said something along the lines of: Don’t tell me what she is doing with her mouth, tell me why! That advice has stuck with me!

    I had given a nice physical description but hadn’t put in the motivation. Sometimes as writers we are so frequently told to show not tell we take it to mean that if we just put in all this physical description “showing” what our character is doing, that is enough. But in the end, it doesn’t represent the why–or the motivation. It leaves a gap between the reader and the character.

  3. Can’t have plot without characters taking action. Can’t have characters take action without understanding what makes them behave the ways they do. And you can’t have believability unless the reader also understands.

    Motivation is also really important to understand in villains and secondary characters. If a minor boy character agrees to drive 200 miles to pick up the main girl character from the apartment of her (now ex) boyfriend, it better not be simply because he just got a new Prius and really loves getting good gas mileage. (I.e. he is a character, not just a plot mechanism for getting her from one place to another.) Similarly, villains can’t just do things that give the main character an advantage. Villains want to win, too, and their actions shouldn’t be driven by the preconceived plot arc but rather the other way round.

  4. Thanks for the advice! My post it is hung 😉
    I’m all about connecting and eliciting that emotinal response. This will be a good quote to bounce off of in my upcoming writing.

  5. Well worth the time and effort to dig deep into your character and really get to know them. You can’t convey what you don’t know. Thanks for the succinct reminder!

  6. Thank you! This is such a simple but important point, and one I find myself forgetting from time to time.

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