Characters’ Core: Motivation- Taylor

At last, it’s great to be back! Although I wasn’t writing short stories while away in New York for a project, I have been working on an assignment my mentor gave me. As he put it:

“Your Assignment 4 for the period of your Senior Project is to observe, and to question motives (either internally or verbally, your choice) of everyone you meet, strangers and intimates alike.  What are their goals, large and small?  What moves them?  What decisions in their pasts might have led them to this moment, this choice, this course of action.  Can you peer into the mundane, banal, and quotidian choices, and discover when these god-like creatures before you rendered an infinite array of possibilities down to the singular choice, let’s say, to purchase a cup of coffee as the best, the only way to live this moment?”

Before I share the notes I took on this assignment, I did a little research on tips about character motivation. The first two that came to mind were from one of my previous posts involving Lisa Cron’s 7th Random Writing Tip, “There are two basic motivating factors for all human action: Fear and desire,” and Kurt Vonnegut’s 3rd Basic Creative Writing Tip, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

After that, I found “How to Explore Characters’ Motivations” by Joe Bunting. In his post, Bunting says that in order to show readers why your characters do the things they do, try interrogations: “To understand the motivations of your characters, you need to interrogate them. Strap them to a chair, shine a bright light in their eyes, and make them talk.” It’s the responses you get from your characters that you need to convey to your audience.

Elizabeth Moon’s, “Motivation: Attaching Character to Plot,” has great advice, too, adding how characters’ personal experiences greatly influence their actions: “Motivation is the power behind the plot…Your character’s prior experiences gave the character values to apply to situations–to recognize problems as problems–to decide to act–and how to act in those situations. So the most important things to know about your character are internal things, things that make him/her behave believably in human terms, not just physical-science terms. Motivation attaches character and plot and converts events and traits into Story.”

As I’ve learned, every artist needs the power of observation in order to better understand the way people act and to help convey the behaviors of characters in writing. It’s important to discover which motives are exciting to you and make you want to write more about them. While my observations of people’s motivations didn’t go into a lot of depth, here are some of the choices I saw people make in New York and what I determined might be the influence behind them:

  • Career Path:

–          Filling a void, creating an awareness about something you’re passionate about

–          Choosing the ideal to search for a lucrative job instead of pursing what you love

–          Use as a stepping stone for a larger goal

–          Following your dream

–          To learn and become your own person

–          Find something where you’re happy with what you’re doing

–          Obligation/promise to someone close to you

–          Family connections/ family business

–          Provide for family

  • Getting a cup tea:

–          Getting over illness

–          Relaxation

–          Linking to positive memory

–          Only drink available

  • Goals

–          Climb the company ladder

–          Start a family

–          Get hired from an intern to an official employee

–          Building connections/relationships

  • Going Out to Eat

–          Exploring the different food options available

–          Enjoyment of eating at restaurants

–          Don’t have anything to cook

–          Meeting people

  • Staying in a hotel

–          Cheaper than renting an apartment

–          Resources at the tips of your fingers

–          Hotel closer to where working

–          Don’t have any friends or family members to stay with

  • Taking on an intern

–          Chance to pass on what you know

–          Open a door to opportunities for someone else

–          Getting the chance to learn from the intern

–          To help, just as someone once helped you

–          Remembering what it was like when you were an intern

–          Wanting to see someone succeed


What other motivations have you found in people or your characters?

2 thoughts on “Characters’ Core: Motivation- Taylor

  1. margaretjhaviland

    Taylor, I have been thinking about motivation since I first saw this post. Then today I listened to a program on WHYY This was all about how parents choose what to do when their baby is born prematurely. One of the parents in the story is actually a neonatologist who runs the NICU where his child is born. He knows that when he touches his 23 week old daughter’s hand and she grabs it that this is a reflex from a deep ancient part of the brain, that the parts of the brain that deal with thought, will, emotions, havetwhat about the decisions we make that are influenced by those parts of our brains that first evolved when we were tiny mammals running around trying to not get stepped on by dinosaurs!

    Anyway, I know this is hard to do , as readers we want to know why characters act, it needs to make sense and yet sometimes things don’t make sense in life, so how do you convey that in fiction and leave the reader satisfied?.

    1. Taylor Griffith Post author

      Surprisingly, there are a lot of instances in life that don’t make sense, but people readily accept them in their day to day lives. If a writer tries to convey those instances in a story, on the other hand, readers are quick to question how “realistic” they are, as their image of what a “normal” life is doesn’t include these bizarre moments. As a result, I try to stick with what makes the most sense. Sure, that’s playing it safe, but I rather the reader focus on the story as a whole rather than getting wrapped up in the strangeness of reality.


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