Character motivations are a tricky business. You know what the character wants– the latest MacGuffin, closure with his estranged son, a sandwich– but why do they want it? “Because that’s what moves the story forward” is not the right answer. Why do characters want what they want?
Why do people want what they want? It’s never “just because”. They have a need that must be filled– the original definition of “want”. They are missing something, just like everyone else in the world. The same goes for characters.
Let’s say you have a villain. (I know, I’m assuming a lot, but bear with me.) That villain wants the exact opposite of what the hero wants– world domination, perhaps, or just a checkbook of her own. Obviously, this villain needs to want that thing, or we have no story, but if you want a good villain, you’ll have to do better than that. Why does she want a checkbook? Why world domination? Why Bill’s sandwich?
Now you need to look at her personality. Whatever her motive, it has to fit. Now, if you haven’t figured out who exactly she is yet, that’s fine– just make sure the rest of her character fits this motive. If she loves dogs and hates cats– allergic, even– she isn’t likely to steal the protagonist’s cat. Or if she just bombed Tokyo, she isn’t likely to gasp in shock at the cruel destruction of an anthill. Everything must line up– when it doesn’t, you find the character resisting you.
After all this, you must consider all the angles. Perhaps the motive is emotional– perhaps it is merely mercenary. Obviously, the motive must be personal to the character– if it isn’t personal, they can give up when they want– but does it benefit her or someone else? If someone else, who? Try not to invent someone new for that job and only that job. Such characters tend to be flat because (gasp!) they have no goals, no motives.
Some people cheat and make their villains insane just so they don’t have a motive. Usually these are the worst villains around, even in villainous standards. If at all possible, avoid the insanity plea. Yes, their logic can be twisted, but even psychos think they’re doing things for a reason.
That’s the trick to writing tragic villains, as well– villains like Gollum or Loki who could have been good had the dice fallen differently. Give them motives they can cling to. It’s easy enough to make them do evil, but to have a reason makes them heartbreaking. (And if you think appearance plays a greater role in this than motive, compare Gollum to any villain from James Bond. Not all of them are handsome, really, but they aren’t hunched and shriveled. Sure, having good looks help, but even after you’ve been climbing around the Misty Mountains you can outdo a normal villain as long as you have a good motive.)
Occasionally, character motivations change as the character moves through the story. This can sometimes be classified as part of the character arc, but not always. For instance, Gollum first guides Frodo and Sam through the story because he wants the Ring, but eventually he comes to like Frodo and wants to guide them because of that. Then, of course, Frodo betrays him and he slips back into the old motivation, but that little change lets us know the depth of his character.
It’s difficult to find good examples of motivation because every successful character you read will have them, and unsuccessful characters probably won’t make it through edits. However, some of my favorite motivations come from Inception (the main character does the heist because he wants to get back to his family), The Accidental Hero (the main character defeats the evil to clear his name), and Lord of the Rings (I already explained Gollum). Les Miserables is like a study in character motivations– every character has one, and all of them interweave into a pretty amazing– occasionally confusing– whole.
What’s your process to choosing character motivations? Do you have one, or do you just raise your scepter of writerly omnipotence and bend them to your will?
(By the way, I spent a full five hours trying to think up a title for this post. I hope you’re happy.)