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Thread: How To Figure Out Character Motivations

  1. #31
    To gain a better understanding of character's motivations and how they effect the story, just look at you and your spouse (or immediate friends.)
    How often have you formulated a perfect plan only to have it disassembled by your wife/husband?
    You were so sure of your idea...but he/she had an entirely different set of motivations and shot holes in it.

    It is poor character development to assume that everybody on a quest has the same motivations.
    While Frodo and his gardener may have been united in their quest...the third in their trio had his own motivations.
    Underneath it all, Golum just wanted his damned ring back.

  2. #32
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheMightyAz View Post
    I'm with you on this. I don't think your characters need motives at all. Life is an adventure and many people are lead on adventures they didn't expect and aren't equipped for. Those are the BEST adventures in my opinion. From the basics of 'conflict' it offers many more opportunities than a planned protagonist going through a story he's undertaken purposefully and is well equipped for. Those unforeseen adventures and never before encountered hurdles, are going to change your protagonist in interesting ways.
    Hm, to me this sounds like a confusion between motives and goals. No, they certainly don't need goals, and you're right that the best adventures are unexpected. I used to get mad when I read certain kinds of writing advice on structuring your novel so the protagonist is pursuing a goal form beginning to end, thinking "geez, does every story have to begin with someone getting kidnapped or whatever?"

    But that's a goal. To me a motive can be a goal, or not. It doesn't have to be as focused as that. Everyone wants something. Your protagonist doesn't even have to know what they want but they do have to want something. An underlying sort of something, is what I'm trying to express. Frodo wants peace in the Shire, but since he can't have it he tries his hardest to save the Shire; the same motivation is underneath that. A lot of people want intangible things that don't send them on quests, a lot of the time, they want love or respect or to be left alone or for their dad to be proud of them or to prove that they don't care what people think or that they did better in life than their high school bully. But whatever adventures life throws at them, their underlying motivations inform how they handle those.

    And motivations change, too. I don't think they have to be the same through a whole story. The moment when they change, or when the character finally chooses which is the most fundamental, can be a really deep moment.

  3. #33
    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    Hm, to me this sounds like a confusion between motives and goals. No, they certainly don't need goals, and you're right that the best adventures are unexpected. I used to get mad when I read certain kinds of writing advice on structuring your novel so the protagonist is pursuing a goal form beginning to end, thinking "geez, does every story have to begin with someone getting kidnapped or whatever?"

    But that's a goal. To me a motive can be a goal, or not. It doesn't have to be as focused as that. Everyone wants something. Your protagonist doesn't even have to know what they want but they do have to want something. An underlying sort of something, is what I'm trying to express. Frodo wants peace in the Shire, but since he can't have it he tries his hardest to save the Shire; the same motivation is underneath that. A lot of people want intangible things that don't send them on quests, a lot of the time, they want love or respect or to be left alone or for their dad to be proud of them or to prove that they don't care what people think or that they did better in life than their high school bully. But whatever adventures life throws at them, their underlying motivations inform how they handle those.

    And motivations change, too. I don't think they have to be the same through a whole story. The moment when they change, or when the character finally chooses which is the most fundamental, can be a really deep moment.
    It depends on how you boil a story down though, doesn't it. If you look at Lord of the Rings as a whole, yes you could boil it down to Frodo wanting to save the shire, but that's not how the story really begins. Frodo is quite happy living a relaxed life. It's not until adventure comes knocking in the form of Gandalf that he even gets a sniff of his coming adventure. Even when the dwarfs are piling in through the door, he's still not aware he's about to begin an adventure to 'save the shire'. The story doesn't begin with the adventure, it leads to the adventure and until then, Frodo is just an ordinary Hobbit doing ordinary things in a idyllic village in the shire.

    There's no motive. There's no goal. Those are foisted upon him.
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  4. #34
    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    Hm, to me this sounds like a confusion between motives and goals. No, they certainly don't need goals, and you're right that the best adventures are unexpected. I used to get mad when I read certain kinds of writing advice on structuring your novel so the protagonist is pursuing a goal form beginning to end, thinking "geez, does every story have to begin with someone getting kidnapped or whatever?"

    But that's a goal. To me a motive can be a goal, or not. It doesn't have to be as focused as that. Everyone wants something. Your protagonist doesn't even have to know what they want but they do have to want something. An underlying sort of something, is what I'm trying to express. Frodo wants peace in the Shire, but since he can't have it he tries his hardest to save the Shire; the same motivation is underneath that. A lot of people want intangible things that don't send them on quests, a lot of the time, they want love or respect or to be left alone or for their dad to be proud of them or to prove that they don't care what people think or that they did better in life than their high school bully. But whatever adventures life throws at them, their underlying motivations inform how they handle those.

    And motivations change, too. I don't think they have to be the same through a whole story. The moment when they change, or when the character finally chooses which is the most fundamental, can be a really deep moment.
    Quote Originally Posted by TheMightyAz View Post
    It depends on how you boil a story down though, doesn't it. If you look at Lord of the Rings as a whole, yes you could boil it down to Frodo wanting to save the shire, but that's not how the story really begins. Frodo is quite happy living a relaxed life. It's not until adventure comes knocking in the form of Gandalf that he even gets a sniff of his coming adventure. Even when the dwarfs are piling in through the door, he's still not aware he's about to begin an adventure to 'save the shire'. The story doesn't begin with the adventure, it leads to the adventure and until then, Frodo is just an ordinary Hobbit doing ordinary things in a idyllic village in the shire.

    There's no motive. There's no goal. Those are foisted upon him.
    I never got the sense that Frodo was in it to save the Shire. That may have been part of his information, but it started because he had possession of the Ring. Gandalf talked him into taking it to Rivendell, and he was glad to be rid of it once there. Then, no one at the Council thought they could handle the temptation to use it, including Gandalf, so Frodo did a gut check and stepped up. At that point, any thoughts concerning the Shire were not a central part of his decision. He even tried to hand it off to Galadriel, and she gave him an emphatic NO with a vision. Epitome of the reluctant hero. Later, his possession of the Ring became an addiction, which was also the root of Gollum's behavior.

    Crooked Bird has it right. A goal and a motive are not the same thing. The goal is what you want. The motive is why you want it. One person may want power so he can reverse the abuses of the current power holder. Another person may want power so he can commit abuses. Same goal, opposite motives.

    Some interesting stories of character growth occur when a character realizes they want something for the wrong reason, and either spurn the goal or determine to act differently than they thought they would once they get it.

  5. #35
    Quote Originally Posted by vranger View Post
    I never got the sense that Frodo was in it to save the Shire. That may have been part of his information, but it started because he had possession of the Ring. Gandalf talked him into taking it to Rivendell, and he was glad to be rid of it once there. Then, no one at the Council thought they could handle the temptation to use it, including Gandalf, so Frodo did a gut check and stepped up. At that point, any thoughts concerning the Shire were not a central part of his decision. He even tried to hand it off to Galadriel, and she gave him an emphatic NO with a vision. Epitome of the reluctant hero. Later, his possession of the Ring became an addiction, which was also the root of Gollum's behavior.

    Crooked Bird has it right. A goal and a motive are not the same thing. The goal is what you want. The motive is why you want it. One person may want power so he can reverse the abuses of the current power holder. Another person may want power so he can commit abuses. Same goal, opposite motives.

    Some interesting stories of character growth occur when a character realizes they want something for the wrong reason, and either spurn the goal or determine to act differently than they thought they would once they get it.
    I think we're getting into pedantic territory to be honest. At the very beginning, when this conversation started, the argument was (pertaining to the thread) that the protagonist needs a motive and a goal. In other words, those have to already be 'preinstalled' into his character's make up. But I don't agree. Yes, at some point a goal and a motive appear, but a character does not need them to begin an adventure.

    That's the point I'm making.
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  6. #36
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    Quote Originally Posted by vranger View Post
    I never got the sense that Frodo was in it to save the Shire... Then, no one at the Council thought they could handle the temptation to use it, including Gandalf, so Frodo did a gut check and stepped up.
    Yeah, this is true. Frodo's doing his duty, mainly. (Incidentally this is why I write historical fiction! Forces like duty and honor are interesting to me, they offer powerful dilemmas, and there's a bit of a shortage of them in the modern day.) Frodo's an interesting example, and well-chosen for your point, Az, but do you see the difference between motive and goal, though? He always wants something, even if he has what he wants at the beginning. That's still a force that plays into the story, even if it does so by making it hard for him to get with the program because the journey means losing what he has--that's important because it makes his part of the story more poignant. I mean that part's very classic Hero's Journey: you've offered good descriptions of the Ordinary World and the Call to Adventure in your posts. And you're right that adventures can be foisted on characters & often are, the Hero's Journey attests to it.

    In a way I think the part I was missing is that the hero can actually have everything he wants, in the beginning. That's what I hear you saying and it's true. But at some point he loses it, if there's a story there.

    If the distinction between motive and goal seems immaterial to you and you don't want to go into semantics, let me get your opinion on a concrete outworking of this: I just finished my first-ever romance & am getting ready for revision. Two young people in 1944 France who are involved in resistance activities in very different ways meet on a train during a crisis that forces both of them to act quickly & depend on each other's help; that's chapter 2. In chapter 1 we see the young woman's resistance activities and meet her friends/community, her Ordinary World (even if it's foreign to us.) She has a full life, she has what she wants: freedom to act against the Germans. But it's a very spartan existence and as she sees two of her mentors starting to fall in love with each other, she starts to feel a certain longing. She lives her whole life in service of a goal, but somewhere underneath she realizes she wants what she articulates to herself in her room that night as "something of my own."

    Now, I wrote that passage because I feel like the protagonist should want something, because I think we sympathize with someone wanting something, because the most classic Disney Renaissance musicals all have an "I Want" song (e.g. "Part of Your World" in The Little Mermaid) and I think it's part of what makes them compelling, and because I remember as a young woman saying to myself that I wanted something of my own. The passage isn't strictly necessary. We could skip it and just have her meet this young man on the train and find him exciting. But I wrote it. So, what do you think--is it unnecessary, would you expect it to add something to the story emotionally, would you simply reserve judgment and say it stands or falls on how well it reads? Would you write that type of passage?

    Quote Originally Posted by vranger View Post
    The goal is what you want. The motive is why you want it. One person may want power so he can reverse the abuses of the current power holder. Another person may want power so he can commit abuses. Same goal, opposite motives.
    This is really well summarized.

  7. #37
    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    Yeah, this is true. Frodo's doing his duty, mainly. (Incidentally this is why I write historical fiction! Forces like duty and honor are interesting to me, they offer powerful dilemmas, and there's a bit of a shortage of them in the modern day.) Frodo's an interesting example, and well-chosen for your point, Az, but do you see the difference between motive and goal, though? He always wants something, even if he has what he wants at the beginning. That's still a force that plays into the story, even if it does so by making it hard for him to get with the program because the journey means losing what he has--that's important because it makes his part of the story more poignant. I mean that part's very classic Hero's Journey: you've offered good descriptions of the Ordinary World and the Call to Adventure in your posts. And you're right that adventures can be foisted on characters & often are, the Hero's Journey attests to it.

    In a way I think the part I was missing is that the hero can actually have everything he wants, in the beginning. That's what I hear you saying and it's true. But at some point he loses it, if there's a story there.

    If the distinction between motive and goal seems immaterial to you and you don't want to go into semantics, let me get your opinion on a concrete outworking of this: I just finished my first-ever romance & am getting ready for revision. Two young people in 1944 France who are involved in resistance activities in very different ways meet on a train during a crisis that forces both of them to act quickly & depend on each other's help; that's chapter 2. In chapter 1 we see the young woman's resistance activities and meet her friends/community, her Ordinary World (even if it's foreign to us.) She has a full life, she has what she wants: freedom to act against the Germans. But it's a very spartan existence and as she sees two of her mentors starting to fall in love with each other, she starts to feel a certain longing. She lives her whole life in service of a goal, but somewhere underneath she realizes she wants what she articulates to herself in her room that night as "something of my own."

    Now, I wrote that passage because I feel like the protagonist should want something, because I think we sympathize with someone wanting something, because the most classic Disney Renaissance musicals all have an "I Want" song (e.g. "Part of Your World" in The Little Mermaid) and I think it's part of what makes them compelling, and because I remember as a young woman saying to myself that I wanted something of my own. The passage isn't strictly necessary. We could skip it and just have her meet this young man on the train and find him exciting. But I wrote it. So, what do you think--is it unnecessary, would you expect it to add something to the story emotionally, would you simply reserve judgment and say it stands or falls on how well it reads? Would you write that type of passage?



    This is really well summarized.
    My position on topics like this is neither against or for the point made (in most cases) by the OP. I'm FOR goals and FOR motive, but don't necessarily think a character needs either to embark on a journey/adventure. I find topics that focus the attention on what people consider the 'right' thing to do, suggest by default that anything falling outside of that requirement is 'wrong'.

    It is perfectly fine to have a character that packs fish all day, goes to the pub, gets drunk often and lives what would be considered a boring and ordinary existence. What is this character's goal? To make money, get drunk and have fun. Yes, it's a 'goal' but is it really associated with the goal of the story once entered? What is his motive? Again it's likely to be trivial.

    I think where we'd likely disagree would be a simple semantic point and that would be, as you've implied 'goal'. What sort of a character is he, even if he does only pack fish? Could those simple goals in his life in some way make him more likely to take up adventure if presented? Of course. But do you see how we're playing around the edges here?

    When I think about characters goals and motives, I think about them in terms of the story. While you might consider them as innate characteristics of a character that is more likely to adventure. I was a fish packer, who made money, got drunk and had fun. BUT, I have a urge to look behind doors. In my case you would be absolutely right! But many of my friends just go through the motions, and many of my friends have had terrible experiences, even thought doors don't interest them. In my case, I took the chance. In their case, the chance took them.
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  8. #38
    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    And you're right that adventures can be foisted on characters & often are, the Hero's Journey attests to it.
    Pretty well both off topic and preening, but I mentioned the Hero's Journey in my last finished.

    I turned to my right and stubbed a still undetermined number of toes on the desk chair. I know it was at least two toes, but there was enough pain for three and a half. Is this the hero's journey? You start out the day with stubbed toes, limping, and hopping?

    Quote Originally Posted by TheMightyAz View Post
    My position on topics like this is neither against or for the point made (in most cases) by the OP. I'm FOR goals and FOR motive, but don't necessarily think a character needs either to embark on a journey/adventure. I find topics that focus the attention on what people consider the 'right' thing to do, suggest by default that anything falling outside of that requirement is 'wrong'.

    It is perfectly fine to have a character that packs fish all day, goes to the pub, gets drunk often and lives what would be considered a boring and ordinary existence. What is this character's goal? To make money, get drunk and have fun. Yes, it's a 'goal' but is it really associated with the goal of the story once entered? What is his motive? Again it's likely to be trivial.

    I think where we'd likely disagree would be a simple semantic point and that would be, as you've implied 'goal'. What sort of a character is he, even if he does only pack fish? Could those simple goals in his life in some way make him more likely to take up adventure if presented? Of course. But do you see how we're playing around the edges here?

    When I think about characters goals and motives, I think about them in terms of the story. While you might consider them as innate characteristics of a character that is more likely to adventure. I was a fish packer, who made money, got drunk and had fun. BUT, I have a urge to look behind doors. In my case you would be absolutely right! But many of my friends just go through the motions, and many of my friends have had terrible experiences, even thought doors don't interest them. In my case, I took the chance. In their case, the chance took them.
    I honestly can't think of many stories where the character doesn't start out with a goal, however mundane. The goal often changes, sometimes more than once. I've read plenty of stories where the protagonist's goal is to have no change. They're either content with life, or have convinced themselves that higher aspirations are futile.

    Take Cary Grant's character in "North by Northwest". He's happy with his life. Even after he's kidnapped, he just wants to convince the kidnappers they've got it wrong, and let him go back to his life. It takes a few negative experiences for him to change his mind.

    So that's where we get the Inciting Event. Yes, you start out with no goal for a while, but the Inciting Event leads to it.

    To move over to your discussion, yes, particularly in shorter works, we might have a character study that does nothing but look at a period of time for a character who has no accomplishment and has no growth. All we do is learn about the character, for better or worse. For a longer work, I think you'd find that more often in literary fiction.

  9. #39
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheMightyAz View Post
    I find topics that focus the attention on what people consider the 'right' thing to do, suggest by default that anything falling outside of that requirement is 'wrong'.
    I guess I see what you're saying. Your point is, write the "here's the character's inner motivations" passage if we like, but you'd like to emphasize that we don't have to.

  10. #40
    Quote Originally Posted by Crooked Bird View Post
    I guess I see what you're saying. Your point is, write the "here's the character's inner motivations" passage if we like, but you'd like to emphasize that we don't have to.
    Yeah. Basically, there's no right or wrong and we shouldn't suggest otherwise. I think it's fine to discuss why one would possibly be better than the other, but not to suggest one can't be or shouldn't be used.
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