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One of the basic tenets of story telling is that a character in a story must have a goal. It gives the plot a structure. Characters are always trying to achieve something, whether its to kill the most evil wizard of all time (Harry Potter), love deeply and live fully before dying (Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars), or save society from a corrupt government (Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games trilogy).

But characters don’t just have goals. They also have reasons for going after their goals, and their reasons are often why we are rooting for them.

People ALWAYS do things for a reason.

We might not understand or agree with their reasons, but they have them. For example, every year at the school where I work, there are several babies born to teen moms. Having a child at age fifteen or sixteen is not something I understand, BUT these girls have reasons for making their decisions.

Maybe they wanted a child to love, maybe the pregnancy was an accident, maybe they wanted to show their boyfriend how much they care, or maybe they’re afraid to talk to someone about getting birth control. We might never know or understand them, but we do know, for sure, that they have their reasons.

Suicide is another example that we have a hard time understanding. We can’t just tell somebody who’s thinking of suicide, “Come on, it’s not that bad,” and expect them to believe us. They won’t. They’re in a dark place that we might never be able to grasp.

When creating characters, the key is to remember that people always have their reasons for their actions, whether we agree with them, understand them, know them, or not.

When you’re creating your characters, this is fun to play with because you can go deeper into the psyche and back story of your characters.

There are two types of motivations that you can give to your characters: intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. You should be layering these and giving your characters both types.

Intrinsic Motivation

This means that characters do things purely for the great feeling it gives them or to avoid an averse feeling. This also covers biological motivations like eating or drinking.

For example, a character might write for the sheer joy of writing, they might avoid a social situation because it causes anxiety, might try to lose weight to feel better, or they might do something illegal to fit in because fitting in is more important to them than potentially breaking the law. They are motivated from within.

Extrinsic Motivation

Characters do things for external rewards like money, a grade, or respect from others.

For example, a character might hate school, but they go because if they don’t, they’ll get punished or they need to get good grades to get into college. People go to jobs they hate every single day because they want the paycheck (extrinsic motivation), so they can eat (intrinsic motivation).

You can use these together as well which provides for great internal conflict. Walter White, the main character in the series Breaking Bad, provides a perfect example of this. Walter is a high school chemistry teacher. He has a son with Cerebral Palsy and a pregnant wife. Then, he gets diagnosed with cancer and realizes that he won’t be able to provide for his family and pay for the cancer treatments. Also, if he dies, they will be financially destitute. His solution? He decides to begin cooking and selling meth to support his family, a morally questionable decision.

His intrinsic motivation is to feel good about financially supporting his family, which is a morally solid decision. His extrinsic motivation is money. How can he make money fast? By selling drugs, of course. This provides the internal conflict in this story. He’s doing something morally wrong (selling drugs) in order to provide for the people he loves most which is morally solid.

This can get fun when you play this up in your story and heighten the internal conflict by using both types of motivations. Your main characters should definitely have both types behind their actions.

You can also keep the push motivations a secret to surprise the reader. John Green does this with Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars. Augustus wants to go to Amsterdam with Hazel, and he tells her it’s because she used her wish, and he wants to give her his wish to make her happy, an admirable extrinsic motivation for him. But, we don’t find out until they get there, that his cancer is back and he is, in fact, dying. He had also had a strong intrinsic motivation to feel joy with his girlfriend during his last month of life.

How does this affect the reader? We love Augustus that much more for his generous spirit and attempt to live life fully before he dies. We empathize with the reasons for his actions.

So, how do you apply this to your stories?

Put it in Action

Layer your Character’s Motivations

1) List your main character’s overarching story goal.

2) List at least three actions this character takes to achieve that goal.

For our example, three actions he might take are to practice everyday after school, introduce himself to the coach, and get to the tryouts ten minutes early every day to warm-up.

3) List at least one intrinsic motivation and one extrinsic motivation behind each action.

For example, he might be intrinsically motivated because he wants to fit in with the athletic crowd at school or maybe he has ADHD and when he exercises a lot, he feels better and can focus more at school. Similarly, he might be extrinsically motivated to practice everyday to prove to his dad that he’s a great athlete because he wants his dad’s respect which is his external reward. Or maybe he likes the idea of getting out of school to go to away games.

4) Write each scene with the reasons that your character acts in the back of your mind, and remember to share those reasons with your reader if necessary to create empathy for your main character.