Motivation, Or Why In the Hell Characters Do Things


Welcome back to the blog. Over the last two weeks, I’ve spoken on two major character types, heroes and villains. Both types are different and have various types that gravitate towards their designations for different reasons. And it is precisely those reasons that bring us to today’s entry. While these characters might all be different, the re is one thing that unites them all and that writers must understand- Motivation.

What It Is

Simply put, motivation is the reason why any character does anything. A person doesn’t suddenly wake up and decide to travel or learn to be an architect; nor does a hero or villain. Obviously these motivations differ in the case of hero and villain- the hero is generally out to redeem or save, while the villain is out to conquer or destroy. However, what these characters do has to fit their character and be true to their central being. Otherwise, their actions will not make sense. These motivations can also be altered or subtle, depending on the character involved.


This is a common motivator which can apply to either hero or villain. A character that feels wronged obviously feels a desire to makes things right. However, their perspective will determine what they do, and how far they will go to achieve it. Professional wrestler Mick Foley was able to use this motivation for his character during his days in Extreme Championship Wrestling. Foley, who has stated that he feels a heel (villain) must believe their actions are justified, was angered by a sign in the audience that read “Cane Dewey,” a reference to Foley’s son and the Singapore Cane incident of the 90’s. Angered by this, and by his belief that the ECW fans were overly demanding and caused wrestlers to attempt dangerous moves to appease them, Foley became a villain, drawing on his real-life feelings to denounce ECW and its fans, while promoting the company’s rival, World Championship Wrestling.

Being the Hero

Despite the title, this motivation can work for both types. Many people have the desire to be admired and respected by the world; in sort, to have ‘hero-worship.’ This can cause them to go on various ventures to achieve this. DC Comic’s Booster Gold time traveled from the future with various weapons to become a famous hero in today’s age, but underwent great personal growth to achieve this. But there is a flip side, as in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Syndrome, the villain of the film, is so obsessed with being a hero that he kills several heroes to create an ultimate fighting robot which he then plans to unleash and ‘stop’, therefore being seen as a hero.

Personal Desire

This is a somewhat vague motivation, but that can allow it to be shaped in many ways. Obviously a villain can act in a way that fulfills their own desires (Scar’s murder of his brother to become king, in the Lion King, General Kang destroys his own Chancellor to prevent peace in Star Trek VI) but heroes often do the same. The difference is that heroes usually start out with one motivation, but see it change into another that shows character growth. For example, Han Solo begins Star Wars simply out for profit and leaves before the final battle. However, he returns and saves the day, showing how his motivations have changed due to his experiences. Regardless of the reasoning, this type of motivation is excellent for showing character traits and expanding on them, hence its popularity among writers.

There are countless ways to motivate a character, but as stated before, the motivation must always be appropriate for the character. Syndrome wanted to be a hero BECAUSE he had been rejected by his idol. Han Solo came back BECAUSE of his experience and BECAUSE he was not really a bad person. And Mick Foley went on to do tremendous work in ECW BECAUSE he was legitimately angry and convened those feelings to his audience. BECAUSE is the question every writer has to ask when discovering their characters. Because if they can’t answer it, why would the readers try to?

*Special Announcement* I will be having a pair of book signings next month, first at the Westfield Town Book Store on 3/8 in Westfield NJ, and at the Plainfield NJ Public Library on 3/22. If you’re in the area, don’t hesitate to stop by, grabbing a signed copy, and talking a bit about writing.

Posted on February 13, 2014, in Inspiration, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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