Just type “character motivation” into Google and you will find hundreds of thousands of hits, most of them having to do with how to create (or not to create) motivations for you fictional characters. Clearly, a fictional character needs some kind of motivation or the story gets nowhere. (There are some exceptions of course. In The Lady From Shanghai, it is never made clear what the main character played by Orson Wells really wants. It’s still a great movie, but the studio execs hated it and a great chunk of the film ended up on the editing room floor to be lost forever.)
You will also find out very soon that a lot of readers and viewers are tired of the old tropes that tend to become character motivations.
So before we start talking about fictional character motivations, let’s step back a moment and think about your own motivations. Why do want to write a book? You might say that you are not writing for the money, but in the back of every writer’s mind is the possibility of turning out a blockbusting best seller, a movie deal, and a millionaire status, however remote the possibility. So let’s just say, for the argument’s sake, that you are in it for the money, even just a little bit. The reality is that you will probably make more money if you invested your time and energy in a more mundane endeavor, like selling car batteries or LAN cables. There is a stable demand for car batteries and an ever growing demand for LAN cables. There is no need to create your merchandise from scratch, no need to create a synopsis or explain the concept, and no need to give a cut to the agent. You only need to find a suitable market and a vacuum in the competition. If you can dominate a sizable slice of the humongous pie, you could become a millionaire and go into early retirement.
But few, if any, people ever say that their dream for the future is to make their fortune selling car batteries or LAN cables. They want to build cars or write software applications. There seems to be a mistaken belief that the only way to win a fortune is to do something creative and sell your own creation. But in fact, if you gather a large number of non-Fortune-list millionaires, you will find that a large majority of them made their fortune selling real estate, drilling equipment, shipping containers, construction machines, and a myriad of mundane things that have little or nothing to do with creativity.
So why do you want to write? If you want to be rich, you are much more likely to become rich selling tires. But you never dream about selling tires. Why is that? Why do people dream of building the next De Lorean? Or creating the next hit app? Or making a movie? Or selling the better mouse trap?
And now that we have that little mystery cooking, let’s get back to fictional character motivation.
Why did Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, want to cook meth? Because he was dying of cancer and wanted to provide for his family, that’s why. But if that is so, why did he need to kill Gus Fring? Because he needed to survive, of course. But if that is so, why didn’t he just run? Why did he keep cooking? Why did he need to keep killing? Why did he need to become the kingpin of the drug world?
Walter White’s initial motivation was to provide for his family, but eventually his motivation changed. It was not about just money any more. It was about winning. It was about utilizing one’s talent. It was about self respect. It was about proving something.
For the same reason writers who dream about writing that best selling novel never dream of taking up a career selling car batteries, fictional characters who go after the money behave in perverse ways. At first it’s all about the money, but it’s also about the ego. And a heist that would have worked without a hitch gets ruined because somebody just couldn’t keep a reign on that ego.
In a good story, character motivations are never simple. You might think that all he wants to do is to get the girl, get the bad guy, get dad to like him, get out of his rut, or show it to the jerk. But he never has just one motivation. He has one motivation that gets side tracked by another motivation. And he would have achieved his first objective faster, safer, and with fewer setbacks if only he could keep focused on it without veering toward his second motivation. That is why the hero ditches the treasure and runs off with the girl, or the villain gloats over the protagonist instead of immediately killing him, and Walter White keeps cooking meth long after he is rich enough to support his family.
The conflict between motivation number one and motivation number two is what illuminates character development and character arcs. And this can be grasped by the realization that people are contradictory. If all you wanted to do was get rich, you don’t have to write a novel, or create software, or invent new computers, or venture into the jungle, or kill Gus Fring. Yet, perversely we do those things and it complicates matters. That is what makes a story human and interesting.