Character Motivation

© 2007 Daniel Arenson

I previously wrote about creating great characters who stand out. In this article, I’d like to drill deeper into the subject of characterization and discuss what motivates our characters.

To create powerful drama, characters should be motivated by deep, personal needs. Even if you’re writing a story about politics and international intrigue, I suggest that your characters be motivated by jealousy, love, or hate.

Let’s look at an example.

Suppose I’m writing a thriller about a British spy in the Soviet Union. Let’s call our spy Hathaway. He must assassinate a high-ranking Russian diplomat named Ivanov, then retrieve secret documents from Anya, a beautiful Russian journalist.

Ivanov is prepared to authorize an invasion of a small Asian country aligned with Britain, and Anya holds his battle plans. If Hathaway fails to retrieve the plans, war will erupt, and Britain’s position in Asia will be compromised. Great! We have high stakes; world peace depends on Hathaway’s success.

But can we crank the drama up a notch? Yes, and we do so by giving the characters personal motivations. In my opinion, it’s not enough that Hathaway wants to save the world due to his sense of national pride and duty. It’s not enough that Ivanov wants to launch a war due to his quest for power. I want them to act from deeper psychological needs.

Suppose that Hathaway and Ivanov were old classmates in Oxford. They were best friends, both brilliant academics at the top of their class. But something happened. They suffered a falling out. Hathaway fell in love with a girl, but Ivanov seduced her, then left her heartbroken.

Now, years later, Hathaway wants to get back at Ivanov. He is not merely motivated by his political quest, but by a personal need for revenge. The drama becomes more powerful. Now it’s personal.

Ivanov, meanwhile, prepares for war. But is he only interested in expanding the Soviet empire? Let’s increase the drama here too. When he was a child, Ivanov and his parents vacationed in the small Asian country he now plans to invade. Rebels in the country kidnapped his parents and murdered them, then took over leadership in a bloody coup. Ivanov now prepares to invade the country for a personal reason: to avenge his parents.

What about Anya? She can be a source for more drama. She holds Ivanov’s secret battle plans, and if she reveals them, the war will fail. Both Ivanov and Hathaway race to find her first. What if the two also fell in love with her? This love triangle will evoke the old rivalry between the two. Once again, Ivanov and Hathaway are competing for the same woman’s love.

I began with a story about war and international intrigue. I then infused it with personal motivations: revenge, love, and lust. Primal emotions make for great drama.

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