I recently stumbled upon an intriguing quote. It stated that heroes and villains always share the same backstory—pain. The difference lies in how they handle it.
Today, I want to delve into the topic of character motivation. When I came across the quote about heroes and villains sharing the same backstory, it piqued my interest as one factor that sets excellent books apart from mediocre and poor ones is the motivation of the characters. When a character’s motivation is clear and believable, we, as readers, tend to resonate with that character, even if we don’t necessarily agree with their decisions. This is why we can sympathize with villains who make bad decisions or heroes who err.
Today, I want to share a simple framework I use to determine character motivation that involves asking three questions:
What does this character need to do in the story? Why do they need to do it? What are they trying to prove by doing it?
The answers to these questions will vary depending on whether we’re discussing a main character, an important side character, or a minor character like ‘random zombie 23’ stumbling through a scene. However, the same questions apply in every case.
Let’s start with our zombie. What does she need to do? She needs to eat the protagonist’s brain. Why? On one hand, she needs the brain for sustenance. But from an author’s perspective, she needs to eat the protagonist’s brain so the heroine can step in and save the day. As an author, I don’t necessarily consider character motivations in the same way a reader might. This character’s role in the story is to act as a foil, allowing the heroine to rescue the hero from danger.
Now, the third question: What does this zombie need to prove to make all of this believable? She needs to prove she’s dangerous, a genuine threat. Otherwise, what’s the point of having someone saved?
But what about a main character, someone vital to the story? Let’s consider a female protagonist who was abandoned at birth. What is her driving need in the story? Suppose she discovers information about an imminent attack on her space colony and needs to warn everyone. Why does she need to do this? On the surface, she needs to help them survive. They’re about to be attacked, and if she doesn’t warn them, they’ll die.
But then we come to our third question. What does she need to prove, either to herself or to our reader, to make all of this believable? This is where we delve into the complex underlying reasons that drive people’s actions. Perhaps she needs to prove that she belongs somewhere. Maybe she feels betrayed or abandoned and needs to prove she’s not like those who abandoned her.
As authors, we often only deal with the first two questions: What does this character need to do, and why do they need to do it? It’s crucial to ask these questions for clarity in our storytelling. But the real magic of character motivation lies in the third question: What is this character trying to prove or disprove through their actions?
The next time you sit down to write a scene, I encourage you to ask these three questions about every character you encounter. With practice, this process will become second nature, and you’ll find yourself understanding your characters’ motivations on a deeper, more human level. This understanding will be reflected in your writing, and your readers will find themselves connecting with your characters.
YouTube Video Link: https://youtu.be/oTEroflCD3U
Thanks for reading and watching.
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