Elizabeth Moon, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer

Motivation: Attaching Character to Plot

Motivation is the power behind the plot. A "problem" is not enough. Dumping a problem on your character's foot will not ensure any particular action. Your character won't act unless he or she is motivated to act, and motivation requires more than "just the facts, ma'am." Your character's prior experiences gave the character values to apply to situations--to recognize problems as problems--to decide to act--and how to act in those situations.. So the most important things to know about your character are internal things, things that make him/her behave believably in human terms, not just physical-science terms. Motivation attaches character and plot and converts events and traits into Story.

Everything we do, we do because of some motivation, and that motivation is beautifully mathematical--a balance of competing forces or vectors (vector calculus, if you will.) We all have dozens of things we might do at any moment--what we actually do is the vector sum of all the influences, internal and external, that bear on the moment. We are hard-wired for two things: first, we are all hardwired to repeat experiences that give pleasure, and avoid those that give pain (positive and negative feedback)...and second, we are hard-wired to pay more attention to the novel, the unexpected experience. These basic biological biases can conflict, to produce the individual who ignores or seeks out experiences that are unpleasant because a) it's become familiar enough to be tolerated or b) the drive for novelty/unexpected overcomes the drive to avoid pain.

So in a story, the characters act for a reason--their reason. Where did that reason come from? What are the vectors that sum into that action? And (most important for the writer) how can we use those potential reasons and factors to make a story work?

The longer the story, the more you have to play with, but in any story (even a short-short) you need more than one level of motivation to make it the best it can be. Let's look at several (which should suggest to you that there are even more, if you need them.)

Physical: on the physical level of motivation, you have the basic biological needs and their associated drives: the need for air, food, water, rest, space in which to exist (habitat, if you will), and avoidance of adverse stimuli such as pain and death. Also on the physical level are bodily functions such as excretion and sex. Choking or suffocating characters will seek air; hungry characters will seek food; characters crammed uncomfortably into a space will try to get out; characters will try to avoid pain and death. Unless there's another competing motivation...because humans will, at times, find something else more compelling than a desire for food or a fear of pain.

Social: here you find the motivations common to a particular social situation--at every level from familial to national/cultural. Cultures set the values that connect facts to actions: hunger to eating or not eating at certain times or particular foods or with certain people or with hands or specific utensils. You'll find multiple levels of social motivation: the unconscious response to early social conditioning that makes it hard for most Americans to eat "bugs" (eeeuw!), the engrained beliefs about gender, race, ethnicity, religion, the prevalent dominance structure and acceptable attitudes about it, and very conscious awareness of what is likely to produce the best social result...which clothes to wear to work v. play, which cultural icons to admire openly, etc. Acceptance, rejection, cooperation, rebellion, dominance games, ambition--arising partly out of individual biology, but also out of the experience of social interaction from infancy on up. Will Janice wear a dress or slacks to work? Will Arnold the freethinker go corporate when he gets that promotion? Will Steve argue with the Homeowners Association about the color limitations of front doors? Will Katy give in when her friends want her to join them for a week in Vegas though she'd really rather stay home and finish her quilt for a quilt show?

Emotional: On the inside, individual to each character, experience (including social experience) is processed differently and leads to a different balance of emotions. Parents and teachers know that one child reacts to a scolding with angry defiance and another with sadness...the same level of scolding. Innately, from birth, personalities are different, and experience can either reinforce that difference or smooth it out--but will not change it. The same basic emotions--joy, sadness, fear, disgust, satisfaction--are attached to different things, in different amounts, in different people, for different reasons. The same objective events have very different effects on the insides of people...one person falls off a horse and never rides again; another falls off the horse (maybe even the same horse the same day) and hops back on without a qualm. Not only does the physical experience vary (one may be more sensitive to pain, or have a better sense of balance) but the social experience will vary (who got laughed at, who got sympathy, who had a previous experience which made being laughed at or getting sympathy different from the other?) and this results in different emotional response.

Your character Larry the diabetic, who's divorced, with two kids (one of whom has a birthday in two days), with credit card debt, a bank account nearing zero, only a quarter tank of gas in the car, bills he has to get in the mail today or else, but payday's not until next week...you can tie his actions to specific physical, social, and emotional motivators. Will he buy his kid the expensive toy the kid really wants and risk more financial problems by not paying his bills? Will he blow his diet because of frustration? What kind of person is he, at all levels? Your decisions, as his writer.

Using motivations from different levels helps enrich characterization and plot both.


Contents of these pages ©1996-2018

Elizabeth Moon

EU Privacy Protections