A cat looks at a mouse

What Every Character Needs

Have you ever read a story and thought it was lacking something? Written a first draft and felt it meandered hopelessly? I know I have, on both counts. Sometimes, whether I’m reading or writing, I find stories that just don’t fit, don’t ring true. Even deep believable characters and an intriguing plot in place may not be enough. To solve this there is one essential element that every character needs for a story that satisfies the reader.

I’m nearing the climax of my current WIP (working title ‘Pain & Gain’), and I just wrote a scene where one of the characters ask my protagonist why he’s carrying on. I’m not sure whether the question was really directed to the protagonist or to me, because I definitely needed to know the answer. The truth is all your characters need motivation.  Motivation kick starts every line of dialogue, every scene and every story. You may be perfectly content with your lot in life (in fact I hope you are), but if your character is then that’s the kiss of death to any story.

‘Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.’ – Kurt Vonnegut

Motivation and Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs

To understand a little more about character motivation you may find it helpful to consider what the psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation.’ In this, he established a hierarchy of needs for humans. For motivations at the top the hierarchy to be pursued, motivations lower down the hierarchy have to be satisfied first.

A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

At the base of the triangle we have physiological needs and safety. This relates nicely to External Motivations for our character,  and recognisable in most popular fiction. In War of the Worlds, Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies for example, the motivation is clear and simple: survival. This is a common motivation, and the easiest to understand. If we see someone in mortal danger, we don’t need to have their motivations explained to us; we understand that if they don’t overcome the peril, they will perish.

Other motivations may not be so apparent. These are the Internal Motivations. More popular in literary fiction, internal motivations revolve around the goals higher up on the hierarchy of needs. According to Masolow, once a person has sufficient access to food, water and shelter, once they are relatively safe, they are then ready to pursue love, self-esteem, and self-actualisation. Although elements of romance are evident in most ficiton (While Katniss Everdene might be fighting to survive the Hunger Games, she still somehow finds time to worry about which boy she finds more attractive), you’ll generally find that character motivations that focus on these internal goals will already have the lower needs satisfied. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t take place during a zombie apocalypse for a reason, nor does the Great Gastsby have to battle an outbreak of plague in order to pursue his ambitions.

Choosing Your Motivation

If you’re trying to decide on a motivation for your character, what works best? Internal or external motivations? As you may have discerned, both are equally valid. However, your character’s motivation will depend largely on your chosen genre, and vice versa. For example, a thriller will likely focus on external motivations, whilst literary fiction will focus on the internal. More importantly however, bear in mind that a character’s motivations will almost certainly change over the course of the story. In fact, their goals will most likely change from scene to scene.

The detective working the case may start off simply wanting to earn enough money to meet his physiological needs, and solve the case by becoming a better man. Or a scientist researching a cure for cancer might be motivated by self-actualisation, becoming the best version of himself possible. When criminals try and steal his research though, he may have to fight just to stay alive. At the start of most Jack Reacher novels, all Jack wants to do is keep his head down, to keep on moving. Within a few chapters, that’s all turned on its head.

Making Motivation Matter

It’s one thing to know what your character’s motivation is, it’s another to make it believable. One of my pet peeves in films is when the character discovers a killer is loose in the house… and then stays in the house. For no discernible reason. It makes no sense, it’s silly, and it’s lazy storytelling. You could argue that staying in the house is key to the character achieving self-esteem. Old haunted house stories often used the device that the characters had to stay in the house until morning if they wanted to receive their inheritance or some other reward. Whilst this may qualify as a motivation, enabling the character to  meet their physiological needs, it’s still important that we understand why that matters to the character. The motive must be understood. It must have a sound basis.

The referee holds up the winners hand after a boxing match

Who wins? Who loses? Who cares?

A clear example of this is evident in virtually every reality show on the television. Whether you’re an X-Factor guy or a Strictly Come Dancing girl, a big part of these shows is getting the audience to buy into the contestant’s motivation. You know those little videos that play before each performance? Where the contestant enthuses about how much this opportunity means to them? All the sob stories?  They’re all there so we as the audience can understand their motives, invest in their journey. If reality television can understand the value of tangible motivations, how much more important that writers do too?

For a story to work, every character needs motivation. It can be internal, or it can be external, or it can vary between the two. The important thing is that it’s there, in every single scene, and that it’s believable. On its own however, motivation still isn’t enough to drive a story forward. Something else is required, which I’ll consider next week