Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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

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  1. So sorry I missed your WW presentation. We were in Chile visiting our son and daughter-in-law who are driving around South America in a camper van. Great trip.

    Thank you for this series on motivation. I’m writing the third book and plotting the fourth. It’s really helpful.

    Lots of hugs…

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      Nice to hear from you–been thinking about you and hope the first Molly book is selling well. Saw your photos on Facebook–looked like a wonderful trip. Hope to see you soon.

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