Positive and Negative Character Motivation

I’ve been preaching all along that character motivation is crucial. Fiction characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective. Those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Character objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it.

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Framing character motivation in a positive versus a negative way.

Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire character arc, as well as more tangible objectives and character motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

Impact of Positive and Negative Motivation

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative character motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

Setting a Proactive Goal for Character Motivation

On the other hand, positive character motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct character motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it.

Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

Keeping Character Motivation In Balance

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive character motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active character motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it. (Check out my post on writing an active protagonist for more on this topic.)

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

Would you like help with crafting compelling characters? Hire me for developmental editing and I will help you take your novel to the next level.

3 Replies to “Positive and Negative Character Motivation”

  1. Christina C. says:

    I kind of like to think of negative motivation as what creates layered, complex villains. I mean Voldemort and Harry Potter both come from the same kind of background (loneliness, no parents, felt like outsiders) but look how different they turned out.

    I like what you said about creating complexity by having both negative and positive motivation in a character. Negative motivation in a way highlights someone’s flaws, the ugly thoughts we all have. But positive motivation is what makes that character a real hero.

    Passive vs active really plays a part in dystopian novels I think, and you see the progression when the character follows the route their active motivation sets them off on and how it often affects the bigger picture and their passive motivation. Hunger Games comes to mind.

    Lovely post, thank you 🙂

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