What’s Your Character’s Motivation?


Whether you develop your character sketches at the beginning of the writing process or work on it throughout the time you are writing the first draft, your writing will be faulty if you don’t know why a character does what he does.In other words, what motivates your character?  If you don’t know why a character does what he or she does, neither will the reader. Everything a person does is for a reason. The deeper you understand that person’s reason, the better you understand what makes the character tick and your readers will find it easier to identify with that character.

In my last post (IDENTIFY) I mentioned that some of the motivating factors relate to past events in a character’s life, also I mentioned relationships with others are motivating factors, however, other factors do apply and it is worth the effort to explore these motivating factors.

The Character’s Mission

The character’s mission is the why he or she is in the story. This is not only a motivating factor for the character, but it is also a motivating factor for the author. The protagonist’s (main character) mission is usually the main plot of the story. The main antagonist’s main mission is to thwart the protagonist’s main mission. Other characters in the book also have main missions as they relate to the story line. If a character doesn’t have a mission, there’s really no reason for him to be in a story. Also, every character in a scene should also have a mission for that scene.


character stereotypes

Archetype comes from the ancient Greek and refers to the idea that similar people objects or concepts are derived, copied, modeled or emulated. According to Jung, archetypes represent fundamental human motifs of experience and evoke deep emotions. These archetypes symbolize the basic human motivation of the character. Each archetype has his or her set of values, meanings and personality traits. There are three different cardinal sets of archetypes ego, soul, and self.  Within each of these sets are four different archetypes. Although there are many different archetypes, Jung defined twelve primary types that symbolize basic human motivations. Each type has its own set of values.  The four Ego types are the innocent, the regular guy (or orphan), the hero and the caregiver. The Soul archetypes include the explorer, the rebel, the lover, and the creator, and the  self archetypes  are the jester, the sage, the magician, and the ruler.

By identifying each character’s archetype, you understand can better understand how what “makes the character tick” and make certain that the character emulates the cliché “to thine own self be true”.

signs of the zodiac

Zodiac Sign

Another way of judging a character’s motivation is to look at his or her sign in the Zodiac. Whether you believe in this or not, doesn’t matter, but these signs are similar to the archetypes mentioned above. My character–Robert McCray–was born on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia. His sign is Cancer.

Cancer, the fourth sign of the zodiac, is all about home. Those born under this sign are ‘roots’ kinds of people, and take great pleasure in the comforts of home and family. Cancers are maternal, domestic and love to nurture others. More than likely, their family will be large, too — the more, the merrier! Cancers will certainly be merry if their home life is serene and harmonious. Traditions are upheld with great zest in a Cancer’s household, since these folks prize family history and love communal activities. They also tend to be patriotic, waving the flag whenever possible. A Cancer’s good memory is the basis for stories told around the dinner table, and don’t be surprised if these folks get emotional about things. Those born under this sign wear their heart on their sleeve, which is just fine by them.

This would explain why in my future novel—The Anvil—Robert opts to join his family on the frontier and doesn’t understand why the girl he wants to marry is completely against the idea.

If you prefer, use the Chinese Zodiac for your guide instead.

Your Character’s Gender and Sexual Orientation

A productive Writer has to find a balance between focus and diversity in order to be as productive as possible.

Each character has a biological gender and identifies with a specific gender role. The role may or may not be the same. In my novels they are the same, but what if they weren’t? How would a transgender person be different than a biologically born male or female? How would they be the same? If this is an issue in your writing, what are the unique nuances of these characters?

Did you know that a transgender person is not necessarily the same as a person who chooses sexual orientation of a person who gay or lesbian. A transgendered female or male may be sexually oriented to individuals who can be either male or female. This whole issue is as complicated as any and you have to understand the nuances of an individual’s gender and sexual orientation if you are going to make these type character believable or not.

In traditional male and female roles, nuances also exist. It is important to understand the usual stereotype of these traditional roles. How do men traditionally think differently than women? How do women react to specific situations compared to men? If you are an author writing about the opposite sex, it is important to think like that person of the other sex. This is especially important when you are writing from the view of that character.

How Being Rich or Poor Affects Character Motivation

I was just reading the other day that people who are rich have difficulty relating to the life of poor people and vice versa. They don’t eat at the same places. They don’t have the same concerns. For instance, a poor artist may think that money will buy them happiness, whereas a rich person might feel trapped in the family business and be wishing for the freedom to explore his artistic talents.

Your Character’s Birth Order and Motivation

Do you know that the fact that whether your character was a first born child, a middle child, a youngest child, or an only child makes a difference on how he or she reacts to the world around them? I have had this discussion with several people lately. I am an eldest child. I am the eldest of six. By the time I was three and a half years old I had three younger siblings. Not only that, but both of my parents were youngest children. From as far back as I can remember (and I remember way back), I remember that I felt responsible for my brothers and sister. It wasn’t because I was forced into that role, but because it was because of who I was. To this day my siblings still come to me for advice and guidance.

Handicaps-Physical, Mental, or Emotional

Not only were my parents youngest children, but they also both had handicaps. Dad had polio when he was in his teens leaving him with a severe limp and my mother had whooping cough when she was seven leaving her deaf. Any hearing ability she has is thanks to an extremely powerful hearing aid. Not only did this add to their being coddled by their parents, but also gave them both strong opinions on vaccinations. It also affected the way other people looked at them. Handicaps can either make or break us.

Not only physical handicaps, but emotional and mental handicaps do affect a character’s motivation. It doesn’t matter whether the disability is their own or the disability of someone close to them. As one of their children, I often felt self-conscious because of my parent’s disabilities.  When I think of disabilities, I am reminded of the movie Forest Gump. Forest had mental and physical disabilities as a child that he overcame with his mother’s help.  Jennie also had a disability. She was abused as a child, so she fell into abusive relationships until she finally accepted Forest’s genuine love for her and their son.

Understanding Motivation is Psychology

Yes, understanding motivation has a lot to do with understanding the psychology of a character.  The more you as the writer understand your character’s mission, his archetype, zodiac sign, gender, birth order, or handicap, the better the reader will understand and identify with the character. The deeper you get into your character’s psychological makeup, the more realistic he or she becomes. So put your character on the couch and learn what makes your character tick. Your reader will thank you for it.

IMG_8330 final copy

Donna Brown is pastor at Faith in God Church  1 1/2 miles south of Brandsville, Missouri on Hwy 63. Sunday services are at 10 am and Wednesday night Bible Study at 6:30 pm.   As Author Cygnet Brown, she  has recently published her first nonfiction book: Simply Vegetable Gardening: Simple Organic Gardening Tips for the Beginning Gardener

She is also the author of historical fiction series The Locket Saga. which includes When God Turned His Head and Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, and most recently, A Coward’s Solace, Book III of the Locket Saga

Her most recent publication were two booklets Help From Kelp and Using Diatomaceous Earth Around the House and Yard. Available in paperback

.For more information about Cygnet Brown and her book, check out her website at http://www.cygnetbrow.com .

  1. Yes, Yes and Yes! So important and so often ignored by beginners.

    • 1authorcygnetbrown said:

      Exactly, too often a beginner writes characters who are like themselves. The characters are all mini-me’s of the author.

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