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Writing character goals & motivations guide

Character goals and character motivations are an integral part of any great story. Without them a story will fall flat, become unrelatable and simply bore readers. Goals and motivations are what drives our lives after all, so it shouldn't be any different for our fictional characters. However, some goals and motivations do make for better fictional characters and simply having a goal and motivation doesn't equal a great story. So what does? In this guide I'll go over many of the elements that'll help you with creating characters with motivations and goals and how to use them well within a story.

Goal vs motivation

Let's first distinguish the difference between the goal and the motivation of a character. The goal is what a character wants, the motivation is why the character wants it. But even further so, a goal is something directed at the future, it's something you wish to happen and you work on achieving that goal. Motivation is something that stems from the past, it's the cumilation of experiences that drive you to wanting to achieve a specific goal.

For example, your goal might be to win a golden medal at the Olympics. Your motivations might be the rush of victory, the acknowledgement and satisfaction of being the best of the world at what you love and all the glory and fame that come with this.

Internal and external motivation

So we know what goals and motivations are, but there's more to motivations than just this. Motivations are either internal or external and the difference between the two is what often makes for great characters and stories. External motivations are the motivations everybody sees or at least the ones you want people to see, whether they're true or not. Internal motivations are the ones you keep closer to yourself and are often the true reasons you do something.
To some extend the external motivations are also the more universal ones, whereas the internal ones are the more individual ones and thus the ones that make a character different from another.

For example, a lawyer might want to take on a notorious case and publically show they're doing it for justice and because it's the right thing to do, but their true motivation might be the money and fame they gain from taking on a big, public case like this.
Internal and external motivations don't have to be separate either, the lawyer could definitely be taking the case for justice and righteousness as well, but in this case the fame and money are more important to him and thus the bigger driving force.

Internal and external conflicts

The different motivations will lead to different conflicts as well. The lawyer above may face external conflicts in the form of other lawyers trying to take over the case or the defendant might not trust the lawyer initially and is hesitant to accept the offer.
In the meantime the lawyer might be conflicted internally by his greed and desire for fame. Perhaps taking the case just for the money doesn't feel right after all or at the very least he's unsure of it.

These conflicts are the driving force behind a story. At the start of the story you have a goal, an internal and external motivation and an internal and external conflict. At the end of the story these will need to be resolved either fully or to a satisfying degree. So in a way you can make a checklist of 5 points for a character and fill them in accordingly. Of course a character doesn't necessarily have only one goal, one of each motivation and one of each conflict, in fact complexity is often better, but it's a good starting point.

Character arc

The before mentioned conflicts and motivations should lead to a character arc as well, which means the character is different at the beginning of a story and at the end. For example, in A Christmas Carol the main character, Scrooge, goes from a greedy, cruel and just all round terrible person to a generous, warm and kinder person.
A character arc doesn't have to be this obvious of course, but it's important your characters change and react to the world around them and to the conflicts they face. This could very well mean they become more steadfast in the way they were, but as long as they change it makes the characters not only more realistic, but also easier to relate to and more compelling to follow as a reader.

Author and character motivations

It's important to distinguish between author motivations and character motivations for a moment. Right now you may already be thinking of all sorts of motivations your characters could have, but it's important to make sure the motivations are theirs and not yours. This may sound odd since you're creating them, but motivations have to make sense for each character rather than being given simply for the sake of the story.

How?

So now you may be wondering how to go about picking or discovering the right motivations for a character or how to make sure you use them well. In the following points I'll go over those elements, but much of it is very much a process of exploration. Discovering your characters based on what you've written so far, what their backstories are, what makes them tick. It's not a linear process or one that finishes at a specific point in the writing process, so don't feel stressed about not figuring out the fine details right away.
The following points are somewhat in order of how I'd go about it, but don't feel like these are all mandatory or even in a very strict order.

Backstory

A character's backstory forms the foundation of their motivations, so it's a good place to start. Backstories are helpful and in some cases almost mandatory to flesh out the characters and to make sure they're consistent throughout the story.
But while you're writing a backstory you'll likely already come across potential goals and motivations. An orphan may wish to find a place to belong and be motivated by bringing joy and companionship to others so they don't feel alone while a person forced to steal might find they enjoy it and become motivated by the thrill of the theft.

You don't have to write down an entire backstory from birth to the point where the main story takes place, all you need are the major events that formed the character into who they are right now, which could include traumatic events, their hopes and dreams growing up, their childhood friends, their family life and so on.
No matter whether you write a huge backstory or a very short one, the entire backstory doesn't necessarily have to be part of the main story. At this stage it's merely a tool to help you flesh out your characters, make them more realistic and set up stronger foundations for the main story.

Fears and desires

Figure out what your character wants (the goal) and what they fear. When you know their goal and their fears you can usually figure out the motives using their backstory. The goal might be to start a family, which could be motivated by the fact they didn't have one growing up or because they need a cover story for their shady dealings.
The fears could be losing that family and ending up alone again or people figuring out this family is just a cover or "worse", actually falling in love with this cover.
Not all the fears have to tie in with the goal, but all (or at least most) goals do come with their own obstacles and thus with the fears of those obstacles blocking the path to completing said goal.

The desire could also be different from the current goal. The goal could merely be a step of the larger desire, like a goal of setting up a small business with the desire to go global. But as I said earlier characters don't have to have only one goal or only one desire for that matter.

Awareness

People aren't always aware of their true motivations, but when motivations become unconscious or subconscious ones it becomes far trickier to write them, depending on how open you want to be about them of course.
Most people have motivations they're not fully aware of or they might simply think they're doing something for a different reason. When you discover a new element about yourself you might discover your motivations were indeed different from what you expected and the same can be true for your fictional characters.

The obvious hidden motivations are those stemming from a traumatic event, but you don't have to go to these extrenes to have unconscious motivations within your characters. For example, you might have a character who desperately wants to help their lover overcome a disease and they might think they do it because they love them and fear losing them, but a bigger motivation could be the desire to feel wanted or to prove they are capable of curing the disease.

Lord of the Rings also provides a great example of this. Frodo accepts to take the ring to Mordor and it seemes he does it out of a sense of duty as the ring came into his posession and because it's the right thing to do, but earlier in the story we learned Frodo had troubles throwing the ring back into the fire at Bilbo's house when he wanted to and when he wanted to just drop it he found he had already put the ring into his pocket.
So withour realizing it Frodo took it upon himself to take the ring to Mordor because he didn't want to part with the ring as well as his conscious reasons.

Diversity and contrast

It's important to have characters with motivations that differ from each other. They might all have a common goal, but if they also have the same motivations they basically become copies of each other.
It works even better if their motivations contrast each other's, but this isn't a requirement and depends entirely on the type of story you wish to write. An easy role playing game example of this is a group of adventurers exploring a dungeon. Some might wish to vanquish evil, others might want the loot and others might want nothing more than to get out of that dungeon.
Contrasts lead to conflicts. No matter whether they're great or small they make for a more interesting story than one in which everything goes perfectly smooth.

You don't always get what you want

On the topic of things going too smooth, don't give your characters what they want that easily. It again doesn't make for a great story and isn't very realistic. In many cases they might never get what they want, which is just a harsh fact of life.
Whenever a character is faced with an obstacle we become invested in that character as we start to wonder whether they'll make it or not. As we keep reading to find out we learn more and more about the character and thus become even more invested. If a character simply got what they were after without too much struggle it feels unrealistic and we quickly lose interest in reading that story.

Don't make it obvious

Once you've established what your character's goals and motivations are and you're using them in your story make sure you don't make it completely obvious what all of their motivations are. It takes a little while to get to know and understand people, sometimes it takes ages in real life, so the same goes for stories. At least to some extend.
In many cases it's a matter of finding the right point in time to reveal specific information. Keeping motivations and the reasoning behind them hidden for a while could lead to a shocking reveal later down the line for example.
It essentially becomes a juggling act of figuring out how much to reveal to the readers, how much the character reveals to other characters they meet and how much other characters already know and thus might reveal in conversation.

Final word

All of this may seem overly complicated, but I think you'll find a lot of this'll come naturally while you write your story. Much of this is human nature after all. Doing it well is definitely quite a task, but as long as you do things one step at a time I'm sure you'll be able to manage. Simply keep the key points (goals, internal and external motivations and conflicts) in mind and you're good to go.