By Lindsi McIntyre
Without motivations, protagonists will be awkward observers to the happenings around them. They will be unable to drive the plot and capture readers’ hearts. Although you can sometimes get away with giving side characters smaller, more attainable goals, a protagonist’s incentives need to be strong enough to support an entire novel.
The Root of Strong Motivations
When characters want something they lack and can’t live without, that’s motivation. This need is often both physical and emotional—such as a protagonist who must escape from an abusive relationship for the sake of her physical and mental health.
However, the character is incapable of acknowledging this need. Otherwise she would have already broke free. So, at the beginning of the story, she is willing to accept the abusive relationship. Perhaps she senses that the situation isn’t right, yet she’s content to let it continue.
Then, about two or three chapters in, her mindset changes. Maybe she learns she’s pregnant, or she discovers that her boyfriend has another family he treats much better than her. Whatever the case, her need transforms into the main focus, and she desires it more than anything else. This is commonly called the Inciting Incident.
The character’s denial or obliviousness to her need caused complacency. Now that she is fully aware of the problem, she must address it. Without this breaking point, she would have carried on as she had before.
Once the protagonist has faced her need, she will act. But, if she were to simply leave her abusive partner, the novel would be boring. (That might work for a short story, but definitely not a book.) To keep her motivated, she needs an obstacle to prevent her from accomplishing her intent.
All characters, even those with minor roles, should be on their own quests to gain something they desperately need.
Maybe the abusive ex likes to feel superior, and the protagonist is the only person he can manipulate. Maybe he can’t stand the thought of being rejected. This will compel him to pursue her and strengthen her resolve to flee, thus orchestrating the dance that will pull readers through the story.
Of course, other characters aren’t the only tool in our arsenal. The force that opposes the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. Nature itself can hinder characters from obtaining what they need.
Maybe the tunnel the protagonist is traveling through collapses on her. Maybe flood waters rise too fast for her to cross the street safely. Each of these elements would cause as much conflict as the ex might if he were the one stopping her from moving forward.
The point is to keep every character from getting what they seek. You must create an environment where characters are constantly running into, around, and away from obstacles.
Bear in mind that a character’s motivations can, will, and should change. Some needs will be met along the way, while new ones will rise up to replace them as the character grows.
For instance, the protagonist realizes she must ditch her ex to lead a happy life, but how this plays out will depend on the type of story. In a heart-pounding thriller, the ex might chase and attack her. Her striving to get away from him would then shift to a need to survive and defend herself.
In a heartwarming tale about recovering from abuse, the protagonist’s attempts to liberate herself might cause her to avoid all relationships, refusing to be hurt again. This will inevitably trap her as much as if she had stayed with her ex. Then someone or something will come along and alert her to this new destructive need. At the end of the story, her need will morph one last time into a yearning to love again.
Characters continually mature just as real people do. And it is these changes that make them relatable and generate a riveting plot.