Author. Word gatherer. Developmental editor. Speaker. Wayfinder. Encourager.

Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 3

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 10•17

Motivations create full-blooded characters.

The Portland area is dressed in a hundred shades of green. Dogwoods are now flowering, graceful blooms umbrellaing amid the spring greens.  Rhododendrons are splashed gaudy amid yards and parks. Nursery centers are burgeoning with plants spilling over, lined in rows, artfully arranged. The garden center parking lot full, patrons pulling wagons of starts and saplings and compost. I’m nursing seedlings in the house next to windows and the names of flowers slip around in my head as I try to visualize flowers beds in the warmer months coming: calendula, hollyhocks, foxglove, delphinium, salvia, cosmo, dahlia….But let’s bring this all back to why characters do what they do.

Smart fiction writers use varying levels of motivations and goals.

Consider how and how much the characters are driven: Primary (dominant) * Secondary *External * Internal* Personal* Public. Then consider who will know about the protagonist’s motivations. Will they be spoken or declared out loud?

Smart writers keep various motivations and goals percolating throughout the story. Here are just a few:

  • desperation
  • duty
  • fame
  • greed
  • guilt
  • jealousy
  • power
  • revenge
  • self preservation/survival

Motivations are deeply felt. Motivations sometimes stem from emotional needs. Dominant motivations are fixed and sometimes not fulfilled until the story climax. Motivations and goals will require the character’s main personality traits to fulfill.

Desperation: Jerry McGuire

Jerry McGuire is a soulless sports agent who gets fired after he writes a memo that gets circulated company-wide. He reaches out to one upcoming football player to rebuild his career. But that player doesn’t trust him, so Jerry needs to prove his worth and redeem himself while a new relationship also gives him a chance at redemption.

Duty and loyalty: Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones

She’s a highborn lady who became a knight sworn to defend and protect the Stark family. Every act she does reflects on her prime motivations and traits:  loyalty, courage, decency.


Protection: Oskar Schindler, Schindler’s List

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Arc. In German-occupied Poland during World War II, a Nazi factory owner realizes that it’s up to him to save the lives of Jews in Krakow by hiring them to work in his factory. It was a terrible risk, but as time went on Schindler became horrified by the Nazi’s agenda and believed he had to do something in the midst of madness.


Tip: Try to show some motivations in small or quiet moments.

Remember: A protagonist’s goals are tied to his or her motivations.

Motivations and goals are tied to character arc. Goals can be humble, but

Motivations and goals are always specific and mostly shown in action.


Be a good steward of your gifts.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 07•17


divine secrets of the writing sisterhoodBe a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular  hours. ~ Jane Kenyon

Motivation: Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 05•17


Motivations are the reason characters attempt any action in a story.

Think about it. It’s morning here and I’m drinking my first cup of tea with the windows open. Been waiting months for a mild, sunny morning because I like to listen to the birds. They’re chirping and tweeting and making a ruckus. One lonely guy has been at it nonstop. Mating calls. We all know what mating calls lead to.

And fiction is full of primal acts and drives.

Later I’m going to work on a client’s manuscript and before it rains I’m going to plant tomatoes and other plants. Because I love eating fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes. It will be a few months before they’re ripe, but prepping the soil and sweating over the raised bed will be worth it. As a writer you’re prepping the soil when you figure out what your character wants and why. When you plan a logical chain of actions and reactions–cause and effect.

Here are the basics of creating credible motivations :

  • Easy to understand, but not easy to achieve.
  • Strong motivations force characters to act, make choices. Will especially reveal why characters make moral choices.
  • Can be shown via action in scenes & will move the story forward.
  • Drawn from protagonist’s backstory and morality.
  • Will become more complex and personal as the story progresses.
  • Will showcase the character’s main traits.
  • Will somehow reveal his/her fears.
  • Will exact a cost as the story progresses.
  • Will create catharsis at the climax.

Motivations are part of the plot:

  • Create goals to be achieved or thwarted. Goals propel the story forward and create opposition.
  • Distinguish the character from the writer because you want distance between you and your imaginary friend. The more you can give characters individual motives and reasons for being, the easier they are to write.
  • Reveal backstory and a character’s inner world and possibly his or her secrets. The why of fiction will always lie in a character’s past. Never forget that readers want to know how characters came to be who they are.
  • Creates outer and inner conflict because deep-seated motivations provoke all sorts of problems to achieve.
  • Prove your character is proactive, not simply reactive.
  • Creates reader/audience involvement/empathy.


Tip: Think of your character at war, with himself or others or a circumstance. And then chronicle the war until there is peace. Or a loss. Or an uneasy new world. While motivations are sometimes hidden, by the end of the story many are staged in scenes.

Stay tuned for part 3 and more examples of motivations.

meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Why Your Characters Do What They Do, part 1

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 03•17

You might have noticed it’s been quiet around here.   A few weeks ago my lower back went to hell and has been spasming and freezing up on me at the most inconvenient times. Sheesh.

But onward.  On April 4 I gave a talk at the Willamette Writers meeting in Portland about  goals, motivations, and stakes in fiction. I cannot believe a whole month has passed, but then I cannot believe that it’s already May. It was a fun night and a delightful audience and I want to follow up with information for those who attended {thanks so much} and writers who don’t live in Portland.

More notes from my talk are now at the Willamette Writers site here.

If you’re familiar with my books or visit this site, you know that I work as a developmental editor. This means that authors and beginning writers send me manuscripts to edit and I help them shape the best possible story. Together we dive in and fix everything from plot holes to dialogue problems to voice. And I often spot troubles with character motivations, goals, and the overall stakes in the story. If these devices aren’t nailed down the story lacks credibility and plausibility. Sometimes writers patch up the holes with coincidences or with the conventions of the genre. For example if he or she writes suspense, well then his protagonist/detective is naturally assigned to the case and the case will be fascinating.

But a detective also needs a personal stake in solving the case–it cannot simply be a job or duty. Just as the detective needs an inner demon or trying circumstance to make the case particularly difficult to solve. Think about Clarice Starling trying to stop a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs while meanwhile she has the diabolical Hannibal Lector messing with her head. She’s forced to interact with him because innocent young women’s lives are at stake. Powerful motivation, right?

But a protagonist needs a reason for being a detective in the first place. This reason should be complicated, because everything in fiction is complicated and layered with meaning and entanglements. This means some events or circumstances in the past pulled the protagonist into this demanding field.  And he or she has the right personality traits to take on the job. The detective might have a strong sense of justice, believes in protecting innocent lives. He or she might be dogged and smart and tough. Whatever it takes to solve the crime. Which brings us back to Clarice who was orphaned when her sheriff father was killed in the line of duty. She was sent to live on her uncle’s farm. One morning she was awakened by the horrible sounds of lambs being slaughtered and tried to save one by running away with it. We learn this seminal moment shaped her because Hannibal Lector, the antagonist, wrings the story from her.

So start with backstory and complex motives for  your protagonist to be involved in the story’s main conflict. Then squeeze and torment him from all sides.

Another example is Atticus Finch in To Kill a MockingbirdAtticus is an attorney and a just and decent man. He’s assigned the case to defend Tom Robinson, a man wrongly accused of rape.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Shown from left: Gregory Peck (as Atticus Finch), Brock Peters (as Tom Robinson)

Atticus realizes this case is going to bring out the worst in people in his community and he’s somewhat reluctant to take it on. But he believes in the law and he believes in Robinson’s innocence.  He also knows he’s the best qualified person to do the job.

Atticus Finch is a beloved fictional character for many reasons. I believe the main reason is that he stands for something and he stands tall. What does your protagonist stand for?

To be continued…..

Fed on Language

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 02•17

A mind fed on such words as heaven, earth, dew, essence, cinnabar, moonlight, stillness, jade, pearl, cedar, and winter plum is likely to have a serenity not to be found in minds ringing with the vocabulary of the present age–computer, tractor, jumbo jet, speedball, pop, dollar, liquidation, napalm, overkill! Who would thrill at the prospect of rocketing to the moon in a billion-dollar spacecraft if he knew how to summon a shimmering gold and scarlet dragon at any time of the day or night and soar among the stars?

~John  Blofeld

Dance around the Maypole, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•17

Frederick Goodall, Raising the Maypole

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•17

Nail it

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 24•17

If I show you my character has great hair, you will not see her. If I tell you she has a tiny scar at the upper left corner of her lip from which protrudes one gray whisker–you will make up the rest of her face with absolute clarity. If I tell you my character is waiting in a car, you wont be ‘caught,’ but if I tell you he pushes his fingers down in the crack of the car seat where the ancient leather has pulled away from the seat frame, and pulls up a small coin purse with a faded in it–you will be mine.

~ Pat Schneide

Keep writing for the senses, keep dreaming, have heart




Writing as Resistance

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 06•17

April 29, 1:30-5:30

Multnomah Village, Portland, Oregon

Is the daily assault of politics and world news interfering with your peace of mind? Are you searching for ways to make a difference? Explore  strategies for talking back to the noise, find some quiet within, and propel your concerns onto the page.

Because some times especially call for potent voices, clear-eyed analysis, and informed dissent. But what form should this take: opinion pieces, essays, fiction, poetry, social media engagement, or a new hybrid expression?  And how do you achieve thoughtful explorations of themes?

First we’ll nail down survival skills for tying times, then we’ll explore various formats and options for writers. We’ll read together several examples; we’ll discuss tone, language, focus and effectiveness.  Together we’ll brainstorm  and share concepts, themes, and markets. And reinforce how we do not need permission to write about what worries us or fires our passions. Our special focus will be on stepping out of the echo chamber and into original thought tied to our own experiences.

Participants will begin a new work and have an opportunity to create a   community of like-minded writer.

$60 Pre-registration required. Workshop is limited to 12 participants.


Stretch as Far as You Can

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 02•17

I’ve worked  with hundreds of writers over the years and if there’s one thing I learned is that writers need to stretch as far as they can.

As in take the biggest risk.  Stage a madcap scenario or the bleakest dystopian future. Imagine the weirdest, most difficult character. Write about a topic that truly scares you. Or keeps you awake past the midnight hours, worrying, pissed off, twisting, tossing.

Step into your own unknown. There is no safe in writing if you’re writing truth. If you’re penning what hurts or what needs saying.  Write for the next generations.

The words and stories and nasty protagonists and your need-to-change-the world ideas are your birthright. 

It’s been said before, but open up that vein. Your wildest imaginings are needed. Your storytelling vision is essential to the planet.

Contribute to the adventure and wonderment  and betterment of humankind.

And do it right. Learning, always learning how to nail a concept or flesh out a character or plot a storyline.

Because these times we live in require all of us reporting and responding and somehow making a better world. Showing the way. Even if takes an evil or mad-as-a-hatter character to do so. Even if you are revealing parts of yourself you’d prefer to remain hidden.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart