Motivation in Storytelling

motivationWhen it comes to writing and developing characters, you need always to keep one thing in mind: motivation.

Motivation is helpful in two fronts. Motivation:

a) defines characters, and

b) pushes the story along

Think about it. In order for the beautiful harmonizing of a solid story and lovable characters to occur, several things must happen, but the main thing is motivation.

Think Lord of the Rings. Not only is the story itself driven by the motivation to destroy the ring, but the characters are defined so clearly because of that motivation.

Think Finding Nemo. The title itself is the motivation behind the entire story and the characters. 

Motivation is nearly everything in a story. Why am I writing this? Why is the bad guy bad? Why did my protagonist just do that?


But the catch is, the motivation must be believable. Now, this is where it gets a little subjective. Certain members of my household like the show Once Upon a Time. I don’t. (Though I do recommend it as clean and safe family viewing.) And the sole reason is because the motivations behind the characters is, to me, completely far-fetched.

Last I saw of it, the Queen wants to curse the whole fairy tale world because Snow White got her prince. That’s like saying the girl whom you detested in high school got married before you, therefore you’re going to go on a shooting rampage at the mall.

Folks, writers – don’t make your characters bad just to be bad. Don’t dwell on it, but give your readers a reason why they’re bad. The Toy Story franchise does this best with their antagonists (need I say more than Lotso/Daisy?).

Likewise, give your readers a reason to believe that your protagonists really are good, and ask yourself the question: Why is my protagonist good?

Another trick: To help keep your story on track, ask yourself at the end of each scene, Why? Why did this scene just happen? Why did my character just say/do that? You ought to be able to answer confidently with the ending in mind so that you’re always heading in that direction.

When I wrote The Man in the Box, I was always prepared to answer someone who might ask me, “Why did you write this book?”

You should be too.

Like The Man in the Box on Facebook for your chance to win a free autographed copy!

Published by Andrew Toy

Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

33 thoughts on “Motivation in Storytelling

  1. Great post. Having a clear motivation for all decisions each character makes is the key differentiator between having a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. The latter creates a greater sense of plausibility and better enables the reader to become attached to your story.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post, and it’s very true. I always keep character motivation in mind when writing, but unfortunately I struggle to apply the same concept to myself!

  3. Awesome post and great advice! 🙂 I’m a huge fan of “Once Upon a Time,” and the show does give a more specific reason in later episodes as to why The Queen (Regina) wants to destroy Snow White’s happiness.

  4. Good advice! I have often come away from a chapter saying now why did that happen. That leads me to write some back story so that I can explain it to myself. The back story becomes part of the mythology and sometimes I find needs to be edited in to another chapter in the story itself.

    1. And that’s only the beginning! Creating fiction is possibly one of the hardest feats. This is why I have such respect for good screenwriters/moviemakers/authors.

  5. Great picture– goes along with the notion that motivation (in a story) stems from desire or need, which usually stem from a problematic situation. I find it interesting that you addressed both characters’ motivations and motivation to write. Both are integral to developing the story, I think.

      1. I used to watch but could no longer- Maybe I saw the only motivation of the story was to have a second season ;). BUT, aren’t most villains just mean and bad because they are mean and bad and hate all the good people?(especially Disney characters)

        1. They used to be. But now, I believe, the bar is being raised especially since the line between “good” and “bad” is blurring.

  6. Thanks for the follow. WOW…Very insightful. This post provides some good advice for all writers, both beginners and veterans. There is never a day that goes by where we aren’t learning something new. Thank you for your definition on what motivation can create and the examples, I love all those productions you’ve listed.

    – Cinn B

  7. Great post, you have a clearly point out the things that we need to keep in mind. Love the photo as well.. it was an OMG moment. 🙂

  8. Whether the motivation makes sense to you or not is not the point. It’s what is motivating the characters–far-fetched aside. A long time ago my husband and I rented a duplex. We were informed about the woman living next door to us by the evicted tenant as we started moving in. All went well for the first few months. I had a toddler and she had a son a number of years older. When I became pregnant with our second child, you could tell a difference in her attitude. After I let my sister move in with us, who was pregnant and unmarried; she went ballistic.
    I found out from a mutual friend that my neighbor thought it was wrong that I was pregnant again, and condoning my sister’s pregnancy. My neighbor had wanted more children, but never got pregnant again. That makes about as much sense as the evil queen’s reason, but it is her reason–her motivation. I can understand the queen’s logic better than I can my old neighbor’s. I have met more than enough far-fetched thinkers in my nursing career to not be surprised by the silliest of “reasoning.”
    Let me tell you my un-fairytale ending: we were evicted because the neighbor complained about us. The previous evicted neighbor had told us that she claimed his white dog attacked her, but he did not own any dogs. Oddly, that same white dog that she now claimed was ours, attacked her. It didn’t matter that we didn’t own a dog either, but as a condolence, they told us they would evict her the next time. Oh, gee, how nice. I don’t have a novel for this yet, but it will find its way into one. Probably not the exact scenario, but the stupid motivation for her behavior; like the evil queen everything has to end unhappily.
    I enjoyed this post, mainly because I need to work on my characters’ motivation.

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