Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

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.


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