Dissecting Your Character’s Motivation

"Discovering the why of motivation is a challenge but worthy of our hard work."


Dissecting character motivation ushers in the potential of improving your novel to bestselling status. Writers sift through a character’s behavior to find the inner quality that drives the character into action. This core, the deep physiological problem plaguing our character, must be resolved before the character can change and grow into a hero. Discovering the why of motivation is a challenge but worthy of our hard work.


A writer labors over characterization to determine if a character is an extrovert or introvert and to what degree. By assigning traits that are traditional and quirky, the process provides the reader with a multi-dimensional character who is real, exciting, and passionate about the adventure ahead. Writers expect the character to reveal itself when hard questions and opinions are presented. But the discovery process also shows how physical characteristics can affect the mental, emotional, or spiritual development.


The exercise builds the story from the foundation up. Writers observe who the character is by placing the person in various scenarios and watching how the true self is revealed. The writer learns by examining the character’s wants and needs, flaws and strengths, and evaluating past experiences to observe how life has shaped the person. This makes behaviors in the present easier to accept, analyze, and evaluate.



Questions such as these require solid answers:


What does the character want and why?

For our character to list what he/she wants in life is easy. So many things sparkle and glitter begging for attention. But do we know why the character desires those things?


What does the character really need to face life’s hardships?

What a character wants isn’t necessarily what the character needs. They are rarely the same: wants operate on pleasure and needs are deeper, often psychological. Pursuing wants can often lead the character down the wrong path until a revelation indicates what is vital to a satisfying life. This means motivation for a need supersedes the wants.


What causes a character to change motivation?

Life experiences affect our characters and sometimes their motivation takes a new turn, and what was vital in the past is no longer the driving force.


What emotions trigger a character’s motivation?

So many details of life sail by unnoticed while others can devastate the character. Discovering these emotional triggers and how they influence motivation leads to a stronger and well-developed story.


To comprehend a character’s problem and how it has affected the psychological aspect of the person, a writer:


  • Uncovers where the character has been.
  • Establishes where the character is now.
  • Determines where the character wants to be.
  • Focuses on what must be overcome to achieve success.



Consider these questions to ask the character:


According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs -- physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization -- what is missing in the character’s life?


How does the character fill the void?


How do the character’s family and friends view him/her?


What lie does the character believe?


How does the character view self-preservation?


What is in the character’s memory box that haunts him/her?


What is in the character’s memory box that is good?


How did the character’s mother comfort him/her as a child?


How did the character’s father comfort him/her as a child?


How does the character respond to betrayal?


What is the one thing the character wants more than anything?


What is the character’s biggest regret?


What is the character’s blind spot?


What is lost if the character fails?


What is the evillest thing the character has ever done?


What will be the character’s eulogy?


When a writer can scrape the scabs off the character’s heart and exposes raw emotions, the reader takes a leap of understanding into the motivation that drives the character into action.


Dig deeper into the character’s backstory and explore the influences that made the character who he/she is on page one of the story. Pose the tough, painful questions that the character many refuse to acknowledge. Don’t give up on dissecting the real character. Explore the raw, the triumphs, and forbidden realities of life.


How do you determine your character’s motivation?


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a former director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, and a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.


DiAnn shares her passion for helping other writers be successful by teaching writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston. DiAnn is very active online and loves to connect with readers on social media and at diannmills.com