You did it. You’ve sketched out a great cast of protagonists, a detailed plot, and a genuinely scary villain (the last part was a cinch after an entire month of articles on the subject here at KP). You begin writing furiously while your excitement’s fresh, but after 10,000 words you exhaust more than half your plot ideas. Your beta readers confirm what you’ve begun to suspect: your characters are accomplishing goals without experiencing tension.
The problem is likely that your protagonists’ motivations are too simplistic. To tell a compelling story, you must establish unique motivations for the protagonists that will drive the plot forward in an intriguing fashion. Below are three pitfalls you need to avoid.
1. Giving Different Characters the Same Motivation
When we observe real people working collaboratively, whether a fast food restaurant’s staff or two children assigned to a class presentation, each individual’s motive for participating will vary and affect how they approach the task.
The new TV drama, Timeless, is a fantastic example of characters who use their differing motivations to achieve the same objectives. The show follows a time machine’s three crew members who are tasked with minimizing the consequences of time travel. The historian Lucy Preston is primarily concerned with preserving history, while Sergeant Wyatt Logan is caught between his duty to protect his crew members and trying to alter the circumstances that led to his wife’s death. The pilot, Rufus, just wants to not die.
These three characters, all from diverse backgrounds, are united by the same goal to conduct successful time-traveling missions. This does not mean that these missions go smoothly. As a Delta Force operator, Wyatt’s first impulse when confronted with deadly force is to shoot his opponent dead. This upsets Lucy, who is worried about the fallout and who will consequently not be born or go on to negotiate a peace treaty with Napoleon. But the strain between them as they react to various events and obstacles produces an excellent story.
Contemplate why you are driven in your work as opposed to your family members or coworkers. Because you need income, you enjoy your job, or because the self-loathing that results from doing nothing purposeful with your life will eat you alive? Take this multiplicity you see in yourself and apply it to your characters.
2. Giving Characters Unchanging Motivations
Once you’ve corrected the flaw of characters with homogenous motivations, you might think your work is done. Wrong. Most of us can’t maintain a consistent attitude toward a task for more than a few days (or even hours), yet we expect our characters to ceaselessly devote themselves to thwarting evil.
If your character has an overall positive change arc, then his motivation should expand beyond his own desires to seek the greater good. The Star Wars movies have used this trope effectively in team missions throughout the saga. Luke matures from a whiny kid in search of excitement to a serious revolutionary determined to rejuvenate the Jedi order, the lifelong smuggler Han Solo nearly sacrifices his life and ship after being captivated by a bossy princess, and Jyn Erso comes to believe in a cause higher than herself instead of merely surviving.
This is not to say that your characters should merely trade one motivation for another. Instead of only wanting his dead father’s approval as he did when he ascended the throne, your character might eventually strive to win the girl, make his kingdom a more just land, and earn the respect of even his servants. Diversifying your characters’ motivations is key.
3. Giving Characters Clichéd Motivations
A final blunder to avoid is choosing overly simplistic or clichéd incentives. Yes, your characters may act out of honor or “because it’s the right thing to do.” But beneath that they should have deeper reasons for their convictions or why they place so much value upon maintaining their honor.
In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup didn’t decide not to kill the dragon out of weakness, although the story insinuates that at first. Later he reveals that “I wouldn’t kill him … because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him, and I saw myself.” Combined with the timing of the revelation, this motivation helped viewers to finally understand Hiccup’s actions throughout the entire movie.
In summary, your character’s stimulus needs to be linked to the core of his being, but still open to being influenced by time and other characters. Once you harmonize these conflicting ideals, you’ll be well on your way to writing authentically motivated characters.