What motivates your characters?
by Joshua Hoyt
Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic or extrinsic. We are all motivated by both forms on a daily basis.
Intrinsic motivation is driven by the good feeling a person gets from just doing the task at hand. It is important to do the task because it makes the person feel better about who they are. This individual will work through the task more willingly than a person working for an extrinsic reward. Some indicators of an intrinsically motivated a person are autonomy, results that are not determined by luck, and performing more than rote tasks to achieve a goal, like memorizing of a list of facts to get a good grade on a test.
Extrinsic motivation is driven by an external motivator, such as working for money. People who are extrinsically motivated are unlikely to be the best workers in the company unless the extrinsic motivator is highly motivating. Studies have shown that too much extrinsic motivation can reduce intrinsic motivation. This is seen in school, as well. Students work for the grade rather than to learn, so they don’t really learn anything beyond the answers to the test. Extrinsic motivation can be used to increase intrinsic motivation, as long as the task is tied to an internal value or belief held by the individual.
When creating our characters, it’s important that we understand how they are motivated. Are they the type that go forth and conquer just because it feels good? Or are they more likely to need a dagger to the back to get going? By understanding how our characters are motivated, we will be able to tell their stories in a much more realistic manner. More importantly, we will be able to help our readers understand why our characters do what they do.
We need to be mindful of what’s motivating our characters and how long the motivation will last. At what point will another motivator be introduced into the story to change the characters’ view of their task? For example, think about the difference between a man fighting to save his country and family and that of a mercenary hired to fight for a country. In the first case, the man’s motivation is family, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the second, the motivator is money. What motivator would change the first man’s will to fight for his family? What motivator would change the second man’s will to fight?
Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, our characters all have motivators that influence the decisions they make. We can use these motivators to realistically influence the direction our story will take. On the other hand, we need to be very careful not to overdo it, or the story will become tiresome. For example, if we overuse the theme of a family taken hostage to force the character to do what the captors say, it can become very tiresome. Lately, this theme has driven me bonkers on a show I’ve been watching. I’ll give you a hint: it starts with an R and ends with evolution. If we want to use family-as-ransom to motivate our main character, we should use it as the ultimate motivator and introduce other, smaller motivators along the way.
Motivators are great tools that writers can use to move their stories forward. When creating your character, jot down a couple of things that motivate your him, her, or it, and then prep the reader for those motivators to take place throughout the story. By doing this, you will have much more realistic characters who will be believable to your readers.
Joshua Hoyt is a school psychologist by day, a father of four and a gamer when he’s not spending time with his family, and an author in all the other spare minutes. He is the author of How to Diagnose Your Character: Using Psychology to Create an In-Depth Character and Order of the Rose. Check out his blog where you can follow the exciting adventure of “The Old Man” and his website to be the first to learn about new releases.