Why do your protagonist and other characters make the decisions that they do in your story? How do you keep those decisions from running away with your plot? Whether we’re talking the big decisions, those actions that change the course of the story, and the little ones, like the face they make when another character does something, knowing your character’s motivation is what ties the entire story together.
The key to knowing your character’s motivation is pretty simple, actually. It comes from asking four questions.
What do they want?
The first thing to uncover is what your character wants. This want may include something external, like a new job or a relationship, but it has to include something internal. At the end of the day, they want to feel a certain way. Maybe their decisions and actions aren’t the best, but they have to come from a true desire to feel something.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
In the movie Toy Story, Woody wants Andy to play with him more so that he feels he is living into his true purpose.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth wants to marry for love because she believes that love matters more than money.
In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte wants the humans to see Wilbur’s worth because she wants Wilbur to be happy.
There is always something big that the main character wants at the start of the story that drives all of his or her decisions. But at some point, the want may start to change. So with each new scene that you approach, ask yourself: what do they want now? Is it the same, or is it evolving?
What do they believe?
The next question to ask yourself is what this character believes. Now, we’re not talking about every single belief they hold, of course. We’re talking about a single belief or possibly a couple of beliefs that directly impact the story. This is probably closely aligned to what they want.
If Woody wants Andy to play with him so that he’ll live out his life’s purpose, then what does he believe about his life’s purpose? If Charlotte cares about Wilbur, then what does she believe about him (and perhaps farm life in general? If Elizabeth wants to only marry for love because it’s worth more than money, what does she believe about unions made for money and also about love matches?
These are the big questions you want to ask at the start of the story, again especially for your protagonist. But the truth is that beliefs evolve as part of the human (or personified toy or animal) experience. So within each scene, you can ask yourself again: what does this character believe right now?
What is their greatest misbelief?
This question overlaps and may even be the same as the prior question, but I separate it out because, in the case of the protagonist, this shapes the entire story. At the beginning of the story, your main character has a misbelief about themselves, about the world, or about a concept or idea, and that belief is going to change over the course of the story. It may not do a complete 180 reversal, but it will shift and reshape itself as the character makes the decisions that they make. With each action and each decision, they will experience a consequence that will inform their current belief, either strengthening it or changing it somewhat.
What will they believe at the end of the story?
Even if you don’t know yet where your story is going to end, you should know the answer to this question. As we just discussed, what the main character believes at the beginning of your story is going to change and evolve, and this change will shape your entire story. Knowing what this change will be gives you a target to aim towards, and also gives you boundaries within which the change can happen. In each scene, then, you can ask where you are along that timeline of change in beliefs.
“But what about side characters, villains, and the rest?”
I highly recommend that you answer the first two questions – what do they want and what do they believe – for all of the characters that help shape the story in one way or another. Do you need to do it for the barista they get coffee from twice in the story? Probably not, unless they are somehow crucial to the story. (And if they are crucial, they really should be appearing more than twice. Ahem.)
Asking the question of what they’ll believe at the end depends on what you want for the character. If you want the villain to be bad throughout and then face the consequences at the end, then no real change is necessary. But if you want them to evolve, then consider where they will be emotionally at the end of the story so that you can guide their decisions effectively in each scene as well.
Understanding your character’s motivation comes from deeply understanding what is going on inside their heads, both at the start and end of the story as well as in each individual scenes. Asking these questions will help you keep your character’s decision-making focused on the story at hand and keep you from wandering off into the woods, which is always a danger when we don’t have a clear idea of where we’re heading.
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