How to Create Your Fictional Character — Motivations

Creating believable fictional characters to populate the pages of your story is a tall order, especially if you want readers to keep reading, enjoy, and remember your work so that they buy your next story.

Sean P. Durham
Feb 12 · 8 min read

Readers keep reading if there is conflict, they enjoy a good story that is full of characters who clash and create problems that seem impossible to resolve. A clever author will always find a way out of the conflict, and lead the reader deeper into more exciting situations.

Every resolving scene also presents a new problem to overcome. Conflict stems from characters who have problems facing up to their challenges.

When we come up with an idea to write a story, we tend to have just an inkling of an idea that bobs about in our minds. From that point, there are many ways to develop characters into the actor they need to be for a story to gel, and to develop into an enjoyable read.

Some writers like to start writing, just to find out what happens. That’s when the magic of the mind kicks in and creativity summons up amazing scenes and passages that create full stories. Sometimes, it’s all dead fish popping up onto the surface water. Writing by the seat of your pants is a risky business, but it works.

Other writers need a feeling of control and will firstly write a chapter list, a scene list, and a list of goals and resolutions to everything, then finally arrive at a satisfying ending to their story. Then slavishly follow their plan.

Other writers like to invent stories by thinking of a plot and then plonking characters into it. This makes for fast reading, and quickly forgotten stories.

But if you want your characters to be memorable people who readers like to think about, and hope to be able to read again in future stories, then finding character motivation is the key.

There are no rules to writing. One of them is to know your character so well that they come alive on the page, and make up their own rules.

It’s about finding out what motivates a character so much, that in spite of danger, they go after their heart’s desire. We need to know the character inside out. Why do they want to achieve a difficult thing, and why do they believe that if they go through hell, their life will be any better?

There’s a difference between the character who is presented with a problem, a problem that they didn’t want but feel forced to solve, and a character who while resolving the forced problem also solves a personal problem.

One is a flat story and flat characters going through the motions, the other is a character who develops and discovers new ideas.

Fear is often the root of much of life’s problems. Many characters are overcoming their fears when they realize that they have no choice but to face up to the terrible monster that threatens their own existence, or that of their loved ones.

If they don’t they’ll probably be eaten alive. But they realize that they are the only guy in town who could possibly stand a chance against this monster. Normally, it’s because they have a machine, the right weapon, or the intelligence to overcome the stomping monster. The monster can be anything, a corporate company or its evil CEO, hell bent on destroying everything in his or her path to get at valuable resources.

It can also be a soul mate lost to a chancer. The hero has to go out and get their love back — ’cause it’s the right thing to do, and it shows how much mettle they have in their character. At the end of the story we will see that when they found their true self, and faced the enormous complications that love can cause, they also discovered a part of themselves that had been fast asleep for many years. The monster was always within themselves.

Many writers feel that they should spend all their time figuring out their character’s motivations. How? By making lists of characteristics that seem to fit the person they are writing about. The problem here is that it’s tremendously boring, and causes a writer to fall asleep faster than a house cat on a summer’s day.

To figure out what colour a character’s eyes and hair are, before even writing a part of the story, is irrelevant to almost anything that your story is about. It makes no difference if they are tall or short, fat or thin, or a body building champion — unless, all of this somehow connects with them winning the day.

Just like in real life, a character will always present a sense of mystery to the writer, and a well drawn character will keep readers guessing and thinking. If you believe you know everything about your character, and can list their personality traits quickly and efficiently, then they are probably a fairly easy person to get to know.

In real life a person who is easy to know, is often boring, one-sided in their beliefs, and will possess characteristics of a follower, and a person easily pleased. That doesn’t make good reading because it doesn’t create conflict. They are also, as friends, frustrating. Likewise, they learn nothing because they avoid conflict.

Conflict comes from motivations. When we attempt to get something that we want, and the more we want it the more conflict we will face. So, we want characters that kick up dust, or possess conflicting beliefs for the situation we put them in.

Make a plan in real life, all seems well thought out, put the plan into action and discover that getting from point A to B is a pain in the ass. There is something out there waiting to thwart the plan, often, at every step of the way.

Later, when a person has fought the good battle and won the original prize, they learn that it was more about overcoming their own shortcomings than winning the final prize.

Even fictional characters learn that by beating the odds they have learned something valuable about themselves. And now they can live life more fully.

Character motivations are often based on what the character wants, but should really be based on psychological needs that a character prioritizes. Some people grow up and chase money all of their lives, they seem happy to continue their jaunt through the streets chasing green backs that are attached to strings like bankers flying little kites.

The desire isn’t money, or at least in a good story it shouldn’t be that, it should be that if the character can get the money, they will eventually solve an enormous problem. The can finally find security for their family and live in peace and quiet in the suburbs.

Characters have two dimension to fill with characteristics. An inner life and an out life. Physical problems could play a role in stopping them getting what they want. But an extraordinary sense of determination and self-belief might help them overcome their physical problems. The conflict is always present but a dominant character trait overwhelms the weakness.

In real life we seldom really know a person. Their life is an ongoing work of art, so we watch and learn, and even after 20 years of being together friends can always surprise each other.

Do you know somebody who never seems to worry about things? Do they worry, or are they keeping it to themselves? You can’t tell. Your characters are the same.

People who are disappointed in life, after trying so hard, tend to keep things to themselves after a while. They don’t want other people’s well meant input on every project they embark on, so the stay stum and surprise family and friends with an amazing achievement, That happens.

Nobody knew they were building a space rocket in the basement.

Small traits of character that are important are often hidden. Patience is quiet. Can you tell when a person is being very patient, over a long period of time? Normally, we find out how patient they were when they finally explode on us and tell us that we have been ignorant about their understanding and listening attitude.

They tried hard, but we took them for granted. Two character traits that create conflict.

People can be in pain, and not tell us. Others keep deep secrets about things they do or have done. People have jobs where they mustn’t discuss work with people from outside. You could never know that your next door neighbour is a Secret Service guy.

People who boast of their exploits in secret organizations, or military adventures, are often exaggerating their life experience. Secret Service stays a secret, that’s why it works. Military people don’t chit-chat about past events that civilians can’t relate to. Characters who do chit-chat are showing the reader how weak they are for attention, love, recognition. What they want is sitting behind their stories of adventure and derring-do.

In the same way that the desire for money is an empty pursuit, and therefore boring to the reader, characters who boast, are loud and obnoxious, are often looking for some basic human warmth.

So, if a character is always talking money but has none, they will often want something other than money. Their stories of untold wealth and dodgy business deals keeps the other characters in the story enraptured. Their weakness is lack of social skills. They will be caught out, and maybe be given the opportunity, by a good writer, to redeem themselves socially.

Psychologies of human needs are the best place to look for motivations. They go deeper than the simple daily needs of food and shelter, warmth and social acceptance.

A writer who begins to ponder these needs and sees that each human has them, but each for a slightly different reason, a nuance of a need mixed with another basic need, can always create characters who are driven by life, and seem original and interesting.

Despite the common advice to writers to know your character, it is often impossible to really understand and know a well written character. The same in life. We don’t know much about the people we love and cherish. Only what they allow us to know, and that’s a how a story stays intriguing. It’s how two lovers stay together and fall deeper into love over the years. They keep wanting to know more.

A reader is always hunting with their mind, they are hooked by the tid-bits of character that look promising, the indications to what a character is capable will keep them on the edge of their seats. To read and gasp at near misses, is better than to find out that everything worked out just fine.

We don’t need to build characters that are whole — nobody I know is whole. In fact, I’ve never met a whole character, just had glimpses of people as I travel through life. But, I’ve collected many stories worth telling about those people.

Without the fragments of character that I understood about these people, I wouldn’t have a story.

Our story characters pop up in our minds and we want to write them down, find out if they have anything to show us. And as we write we discover things about how they break out of their old worn-out moulds that have held them back, and discover new strengths and powerful inner lives that make stories worth reading.

Sean P. Durham

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

Sean P. Durham

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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