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What Motivates Your Characters?

A Guide

It’s a question that boggles a lot of writers because character motivation can both define and reveal who your character is. Characters have the power to drive stories, and understanding them is often the crux of writing a good plot. So, how do you figure it out?

The Motivators

There are a seemingly infinite number of variables that cause a character to act, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Character motivators can be major, like the death of a loved one, or they can be minor, like losing a favorite pair of shoes. How your character reacts to the problems they’re faced with will show who they are.

Often, two kinds of characters are presented in stories: characters that have a single, constant motivator and characters that have shifting motivations. With the first, whatever the motivator, is the single reason for this character to act, whether it be to save someone’s life, get rich, or take over the world. There maybe other small factors that contribute to his actions but he always has his eye on the endgame. With the second, the character may initially be after some great treasure, but when he finds that the treasure doesn’t exist and he suddenly becomes trapped inside of the temple ruins, his new motivator is survival, and ultimately, to escape.

It’s important to keep in mind that the same things can motivate multiple characters but for entirely different reasons. As with anything in the writing process, you should never stop asking questions. And, most importantly, never forget to ask why.


  • What religion does your character follow or claim to follow?
  • What are the tenants of that religion? Does your character understand those tenants? Or, are they misunderstood? Is it intentional?
  • Does your character pick and choose what tenants of that religion he follows?
  • Does he mix and match from different religions?
  • Maybe your character isn’t religious?
  • Does your character use religion to better the lives of others? Does he use it to better himself?
  • Does he use it to hurt people? Does he use it for control? Does he use it for selfish reasons? Does he hide behind it?
  • Is his use of religion self-destructive?
  • Did he find religion or did he grow up in a religious environment?
  • Was religion forced upon him? Did he accept it or resist?
  • Did he make his own religion?
  • What do others think of his religion?
  • Is it a cult?
  • Are its practices questionable or accepted by society?


  • What is your character afraid of?
  • Does the fear interfere with his daily life?
  • Is it rational? Is it a phobia?
  • Is it a fear he can overcome?
  • Does he want to overcome it?
  • What does your character do to combat his fear? Does he carry a weapon? A flashlight? Another object that may keep him safe, practical or not?
  • Does your character avoid what makes him afraid?
  • If forced to face his fear, how would your character react?
  • Does your character have some form of support for his fear? Is it another person? A group of people?
  • Does his fear make him superstitious?


  • Would your character do anything for the person he loves?
  • What would he risk? What wouldn’t he?
  • Is it unconditional?
  • Does he believe in the concept of soul mates or love at first sight?
  • Does the character he loves also love him?
  • If not, what does your character do to get noticed? Does it work?
  • Is your character obsessed?
  • Does he exhibit unhealthy behavior because of his obsession?
  • Has your character ever been rejected? Does it make him angry? Does it make him sad?
  • What does your character do after being rejected? Does he turn to a comfort like food, alcohol, and solicited sex?
  • Does your character understand the concept of love? Is he able to feel it?
  • How does he feel about sex? Is it the same as his understanding of love? Is it different?
  • What are his views of marriage?


  • If your character is faced with a life-threatening situation, what would he do to survive?
  • Would he be willing to sacrifice others for his own needs?
  • Would he sacrifice himself for another?
  • What dangers is he worried about? What isn’t he worried about?
  • What does he know about his situation? What doesn’t he know?
  • What are his skills? Does he have any prior survival training? Is he former military, police, or government agency?
  • How likely is it that your character will realistically survive the situation?
  • What objects does he have with him?
  • Is your character a smooth talker? A good liar?
  • Is he with anyone else in the situation? How well does he know that person?

The Seven Deadly Sins: Does your character exhibit…

  • Pride?
  • Greed?
  • Lust?
  • Gluttony?
  • Wrath?
  • Envy?
  • Sloth?
  • To what degree does he exhibit one or more of these characteristics? How often does it influence his behavior? Is it noticeable to others? If so, how does it affect them?

The Seven Heavenly Virtues: Does your character exhibit…

  • Chastity?
  • Temperance?
  • Generosity?
  • Diligence?
  • Patience?
  • Kindness?
  • Humility?
  • To what degree does he exhibit one or more of these characteristics? How often does it influence his behavior? Is it noticeable to others? If so, how does it affect them?


  • What is your character’s sense of right and wrong?
  • Does it conflict with the traditionally accepted?
  • Does it go against society?
  • Does he lack a sense of morality?
  • Does he value justice? How does he define it? Does he take it too far?
  • Is your character okay with the concept of vengeance?  
  • Does your character value life or does he see it as a means to an end?


  • Does your character have an illness? Is it physical, mental, or both? Is he disabled?
  • Does his illness affect how he thinks?
  • Does he hear voices?
  • Does he have control over his actions or is he sometimes unable because of his illness?
  • Does he use his illness or disability as an excuse?
  • Does he want to be normal and healthy or has he accepted his illness or disability as a part of him?
  • Does it interfere with his ability to learn?
  • Does society’s perception of his illness or disability affect him?
  • Can his illness be cured? Can it be managed with medication? Is it life-threatening?
  • How does his illness or disability affect others around him?
  • Has it gotten him into trouble?
  • What aspects of life are difficult? What aspects are easy?
  • Was he born with it or did he develop it later in life?
  • Does he know other people with the illness or disability?
  • Did he get proper care when he needed it or was he denied?
  • Is his illness contagious?
  • How much stress does the illness or disability cause?


  • Has he experienced a major or minor loss? Did he lose a sock? A locket given to him by his mother? His first love?
  • Did your character lose someone close to him? How? When?
  • Does he internalize his feelings?
  • Does he get angry? Does he hurt others because he was hurt?
  • Does he cry a lot or become emotional in another manner?
  • Has he resigned to silence?
  • How important was this loss to your character? Why was it important?
  • How did the loss change him? Did it change him?
  • Does your character react appropriately to his loss according to others? Does he overreact?
  • Is your character melodramatic? Does he character make a big deal out of little things?
  • Is he bothered by minor losses and not major ones?
  • Does an illness influence how he reacts to loss? Does his background? His childhood?


  • What does your character do for a living? Is it a job he has a passion for or is it just something he does to get by?
  • Does he care about what he does?
  • Is his job his life?
  • Is his job perceived as important to society?
  • Does his job make him feel important? Better than others?
  • Does his job involve helping others?
  • Does he do it for the reward of making the lives of others better or does he do it for the money?
  • Doe he care about money?
  • Does his job involve saving lives or destroying them?
  • Is he in a place of power at his job or is he an unnoticed grunt?
  • Do others respect him?
  • Is his occupation illegal?


  • What is your character’s addiction? Drugs? Alcohol? Gambling? Sex? Video games? Something else?
  • When denied of his addiction, what would he do to get it back?
  • Has he sought help for his problem before?
  • How does his problem affect those around him?
  • Does he even recognize he has a problem?
  • Does he engage in his addiction of choice alone or with others?
  • Has he been incarcerated before?
  • Has he ever had treatment and relapsed?


  • What kind of environment did your character grow up in?
  • How does your character feel about his family? What is his relationship with them?
  • Are they an active part of his life?
  • Are they encouraging or destructive?
  • Does your character confide in any of them?
  • Are they helpful?
  • Are they overbearing?
  • Are they supporting your character financially or is your character supporting them?
  • Does your character live with his family?

Understanding Morality

When it comes to character development and figuring out their motivations, the morality and values of a character will tend to influence just about everything they do. While we would like to think that everyone has the same sense of right and wrong, that simply isn’t the case. A person’s morality is ultimately subjective, and can be as pure or as warped as you perceive it.

As such, good characters can do bad things and bad characters can do good things for both good and bad reasons. Depending on what they do, the reader will either hate them or be able to accept them, flaws and all. As human beings, most of us can universally agree that killing another person is wrong, but a lot of us are willing to make exceptions to that based on what said person has done. That difference in opinion is part of the reason the death penalty is still a topic of heavy debate. There are those who believe that if you kill an innocent, you also deserve death, while others go against taking another life no matter the circumstance.

You can have a character, like your protagonist, kill and still be liked as long as the reasoning behind it makes sense and is justifiable. Finding believable character motivation isn’t about making perfect characters. It’s about making flawed characters, and in giving them those flaws, along with strengths, you shape your characters as real people in the mind of your reader.  


4101 notes / 6 years 4 months ago
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