I’ve discussed characterisation in various posts, and have always emphasized my personal belief, that strong characters are the heart of compelling fiction.
Whilst other factors, including plot, are undeniably important, weaknesses in these areas can often be forgiven, provided that the reader is sufficiently invested in the characters.
I’ve written posts about character creation, and aspects of character development, and would like to focus right now, on character motivations, in particular.
It’s vital to understand the why behind your characters’ actions and reactions – and to communicate this, via your story’s events, to the reader. I always return to the importance, as I see it, of character development, and exploring character motivations is very much a part of this.
With the possible exception of minor characters, it’s usual for each character to have an arc – a definite pattern of change in that character, from the starting point of the story to the climax.
Sometimes the change will be drastic, and sometimes, very subtle, but there will almost always be change, of some description.
Events in real life shape us, and alter our perspectives, and it’s the same way for our fictional people.
So, in terms of needs and motivations, these will shift and change accordingly, as the story moves along.
Your plot will be influenced by the actions and emotions of the various characters, and these actions and emotions can’t be understood without knowing what motivates the characters, on multiple levels.
Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, represented by a pyramid. Human needs range from the most basic survival – life or death – needs, to the highest human need, for self-actualisation.
At different times, and in different circumstances, our needs will change. When we’re fighting for mere survival, we aren’t focusing upon any need higher than that.
So, there may be times, during the course of your story, when your characters are literally fighting for their lives, and at these times, many of their usual priorities, hopes, and dreams, will fade into insignificance.
But there’s more to it than this, of course. Desires, goals, dreams – all change over time, even outside of life and death situations. True for all of us, and same applies for our characters. Motivations will be consistent, and yet, evolving, also.
The motivations of one character may be in direct conflict with those of another.
This is excellent, from a storytelling perspective, because conflict is essential, in order for your plot to progress, and remain interesting.
The timespan of your story is another consideration.
In my own case, my WIP begins in 1983, ending in the early 1990s. My protagonist, Lucy, is seventeen, at the start.
The epilogue takes place in 1993. The change between a girl of seventeen, and a twenty-seven year old, who has been through the novel’s various events, will obviously be significant.
Many of Lucy’s motivations and needs will be very different. These will have changed gradually, over the years, and the challenge is to not only understand these developments ourselves, but to communicate them effectively, and skilfully, to the reader.
There’s so much more to say, on the subject of character motivations, and character arcs, and it’s difficult to do justice to such a vast, and important, subject. But, for now, these are some thoughts on character motivations, which will hopefully be of interest.