Editors Blog

4 Ways to Motivate Characters and Plot

Some of your characters will change during the course of your story—let’s call them changers. Others—stayers—will not change significantly in personality or outlook, but their motivations may nonetheless change as the story progresses from situation to situation. Both changers and stayers can have progressive motivations.

Confused? Don’t be; it’s simpler than it may seem. Characters come in four basic types:

By Nancy Kress

  1. Characters who never change, neither in personality nor motivation. They are what they are, and they want what they want.
  2. Characters whose basic personality remains the same; they don’t grow or change during the story. But what they want changes as the story progresses (“progressive motivation”).
  3. Characters who change throughout the story, although their motivation does not.
  4. Characters who change throughout the story as their motivation also progresses.

When you know the key motivation(s) behind your character and plot, you can write scenes that not only make sense to you and your readers, but also add depth to your story. Because character and plot are intertwined, we’ll refer to the above four as character/plot patterns. Let’s further explore each one.

Static Personality, Static Motivation

Sometimes a character will have a single overriding motivation for the entire length of a story or novel, plus a strong personality that does not change much. James Bond is a good example. He’s a stayer who starts out resourceful, suave, unflappable and smart. At the end of each of Ian Fleming’s novels, Bond is still resourceful, suave, unflappable and smart.

Nor does his motivation change. At the start of the book he receives a mission, and his goal is to pursue this mission until it’s over, at which point the book ends. There may be interim temporary goals (not getting eaten by alligators, protecting the girl), but they are all part of the single overriding motivation.

It isn’t only adventure fiction to which this applies. In John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, both protagonists, George and Lennie, retain the same motivation throughout. They want to earn enough to buy a small farm of their own. Their personalities, too, remain the same: George the planner and caretaker, Lennie the well-meaning bumbler who brings them both to tragedy.

If you are writing this type of book, your job is to present to us the character and the goal clearly and forcefully fairly early on. Then unfold your tale; we’ll know who your man is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. This leaves us (and you, the writer!) free to complicate other things besides the hero, such as the plot, the conspiracies or the hardware.

Please note, though, that an unfaltering character with an unfaltering goal can still feel more than one emotion at a given moment. James Bond might, for instance, feel attraction to one of the “Bond girls” at the same time that he distrusts her (often with good cause). If your character feels two conflicting things toward another character, bring this to life in the scene in which it happens. Then—and this is the important part—return in the next scene to the main goal.

This tells us that the basic situation is unchanged. Although Bond, for instance, has just made love with a woman, she hasn’t fundamentally changed him. He is not altered in either his personality or motivation as a result of her attractions.

Static Personality, changing motivation

This type of story features a character who doesn’t change in basic personality or beliefs, but what she wants changes as a result of story events.

These characters are often of two types: heroes or villains. The heroic ones are essentially admirable characters from the get-go. They don’t change because the author clearly doesn’t feel they need to; they embody virtues he wishes to advocate. Two disparate examples are Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre) and Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark (The Fountainhead).

Jane is spunky, plain, passionate and moral, even as a child. She believes in the dignity of all individuals, including those at the bottom of the Victorian power structure. We see this early in the book when she stands up for herself, for her friend Helen Burns, or anyone being abused. At the end of the book, she’s still doing it.

However, as Jane grows up, her immediate motivations change. At first, she merely wants to survive the brutalities of her terrible aunt and then of the boarding school that the aunt sends her to. Later, she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester, and wants him—until she learns the truth about him and wants to escape his home. Still more motivations follow.

Howard Roark, even more resolute and heroic than Jane Eyre, never really changes, either. He just rises, without flinching, above the failures and stupidities of the rest of the world. His initial motivation is to design buildings that suit him, with no outside influences dictating his designs; his next motivation is to blow up those buildings because the builders changed some of his architectural plans. Both actions proceed from an unchanged and unshakable conviction of his own superiority.

The point is that if your character is basically heroic, you may not want him to change. In that case, you construct the story this way:

Your character is trying to live his life, but the outside world imposes an obstacle.

The obstacle gives the character a motivation: fight it, flee it, change it or adapt to it.

That first motivation is met by a consequence, which in turn supplies another motivation (the consequence of Jane’s seeking a new teaching post is meeting Mr. Rochester).

That motivation encounters obstacles, etc.

You may recognize this pattern; it’s sometimes referred to as “the classic plot pattern.” (But as we’re discussing here, you know it’s actually one of four basic character/plot patterns.) Its success, as in the first character pattern, depends on a strong, interesting character. Once you have that, you set up initial circumstances for her to cope with and then have her motivation change as consequences flow.

However, as with the first type of character, a basically unchanging personality may nonetheless experience changing or conflicting emotions at any given moment. When Jane Eyre’s cousin, St. John Rivers, asks her to marry him in order to accompany him to India on his missionary work, Jane has mixed reactions:

Of course (as St. John once said) I must seek another interest in life to replace the one lost: Is not the occupation he now offers me truly the most glorious man can adopt or God assign? Is it not, by its noble cares and sublime results, the one best calculated to fill the void left by uptorn affections and demolished hopes? I believe I must say, Yes—and yet I shudder. Alas! If I join St. John, I abandon half myself.

During the rest of this scene, Jane will also feel awe, disdain, humility, dread, rebellion, scorn and hurt. Mixed emotions indeed! But her basic personality and beliefs do not waiver: She wants more than a loveless marriage, even if that marriage is dedicated to God’s work. Jane wants love.

At the other end of the heroism spectrum, some villains have unchanging personalities but changing motivations. They start out venial, greedy, evil or destructive, and they end up the same way. This is true whether they win or lose. Along the way, however, their motivations often enlarge: They become greedier for greater things, destructive on a larger scale, or want to succeed at different, grander schemes of evil. Or, as with heroes, their motivations may change as a result of story events.

Thus, your villain may start out wanting to rob an armored car. He succeeds, but in the course of the robbery kills a police officer. Now his goal is to elude capture. While pursuing him, your detective is forced to shoot the villain’s nephew and protégé, who has drawn a gun on the cop. Now your villain has an additional motivation: revenge on the detective. The stakes have risen with each story event and its consequence—and that’s key to making this type of plot pattern compelling.

Changing Personality, static motivation

In many stories, a major character changes significantly. The character has a single motivation and may expend enormous effort to reach it, like those covered-wagon pioneers who risked everything to trek west. However, during the process of achieving (or not achieving) this overriding goal, the character’s basic personality and/or beliefs change. In fact, this change is often the point of the story.

For example, a young woman has as her motivation the desire to get out of prison. She forms this desire as soon as she is incarcerated, in the first chapter. The book ends when she gets out, for whatever reason: Her time has been served, she successfully escapes or her lawyer wins the appeal. However, this character is a changer, which means that while her goal has stayed constant, her personality/belief structure has not.

For instance, as a result of her interactions with the other inmates, maybe she’s changed from a superior, scornful snob to one who feels that she and the other women are basically the same. She’s gone from scorn to empathy, from disdain to friendship. All the while that she’s been working on getting out of prison, prison has
also been working on her.

When you write this type of character, there are a few critical points to remember:

  • Her character change must come about in response to story events. Create events that could logically lead the character to change in the ways you want. “Devise incidents,” W. Somerset Maugham said about the secret of writing. This is what he meant: You must think up those plot events that will affect your characters enough for them to react with genuine change.
  • Your character must have emotional responses to these events.
  • The character change, too, must be dramatized. We can’t simply be told, “Abby now sympathized with her cellmate.” We must be shown Abby’s change of heart through things she does that she didn’t do before, such as giving and accepting help from this once-despised cellmate. This is called validation, and it is essential for all changing characters.
  • You must include a final validation at the end of the story so we know that your character’s change is not temporary. Usually this ending validation is on a larger scale than what has gone before. For instance, instead of just helping her cellmates with daily frustrations, your protagonist, now out of jail herself, does everything she can to improve the situations of those still inside.

Readers find this kind of story intrinsically satisfying. The single motivation throughout gives the book unity and comprehensibility, and the changing character satisfies the need for fiction to make a comment on life. In the case of the prison story, that comment is positive: People can grow nicer.

You might, however, also use the same character/plot pattern to make a negative observation about the world. In that case, the character with a single goal would, in the course of failing to achieve it, change from naive innocence to “sadder but wiser.” For example, this is the structure of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Protagonist Lily Bart sustains the same motivation throughout the book: to marry for money. She does not succeed. Only at the end, both of the novel and of her life, do events force her to change and then she realizes that she might have had a better life if she’d paid less attention to luxury and more to love. By then, however, it’s too late.

The single-motivation, changing character also works in stories in which the character succeeds in getting what he wants but is disappointed in his success. These are the “be-careful-what-you-wish-for-because-you-might-get-it” stories. The change in the character can be one of two types. In one, he realizes that he’s paid too high a price for success, at which point he may or may not change his life. Or, he never realizes this (or at least never admits it), but changes to grow regretful or bitter as a result of getting what he thought he wanted.

Changing Personality, changing motivation

This is the most complex fictional pattern. A character’s goals change throughout the story, and so does her personality/belief system. Obviously, this is confusing for the character. Your goal is to keep it from also hopelessly confusing the reader.

Consider, for instance, Ensign Willie Keith from Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about World War II, The Caine Mutiny. Willie undergoes a lot of personal change during the war. He also changes motivation often. In sequence:

  • Willie wants to avoid being drafted, so he joins the Navy.
  • Willie wants to avoid difficult duty, so he tries to avoid dangerous ships like minesweepers.
  • Willie wants to transfer off the minesweeper Caine.
  • Willie wants to survive the Caine’s tyrannical, irrational Captain Queeg.
  • Willie wants to get rid of Queeg and joins a mutiny.
  • Willie wants to avoid court-martial and a dishonorable discharge.
  • Willie wants, finally, to become a good naval officer and defend his country as well as he can.

From these changing motivations, you can also see Willie Keith’s internal changes. He moves from being self-centered, looking for the easy way out, to an assumption of duty and, even more important, to feeling that duty is worthwhile.

If you have a character with both progressive motivation and internal changes, congratulations. You’ve got a strong character to carry an ambitious book. To keep all these changes from seeming arbitrary, however, it’s important to follow all the guidelines set out above for single-motivation changers. Your character’s changes must be dramatized, come about as a result of dramatized events, be accompanied by plausibly rendered emotions, and be validated by subsequent actions on his part.

This article on novel writing is by Nancy Kress, who is the author of Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint. Click here to order your copy (or click here to download the ebook).

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3 thoughts on “4 Ways to Motivate Characters and Plot

  1. Khurshid

    I am so happy that I had signed in for the newsletter. Thanks for the informative articles and tips on writing. Appreciate Brian and Nancy’s inputs and hard work.

  2. Jwtroemner

    I’m so used to being told that main characters must irrefutably be dynamic as opposed to static. It’s refreshing to hear that there can be a variety.

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