Creating Characters: Providing Motivation

Pictures of gladiators – just for the hell of it.

This completes a trilogy of posts about characterisation related to the project I expect to be working on next year – a novel about a group of 1st century Roman gladiators sent on a secret mission for Emperor Vespasian. The other two here and here were about creating chemistry between characters.

Our characters need motivation for the things that they do. Without it they are one dimensional, unthinking, unfeeling automatons pushed from pillar to post. Nobody likes to see a passive character; in life we don’t like people being passive just bumbling along and moulded by the environment around them. Few people are like that, even those who are passive by nature have some motives for what they do – even if it is for the love of their children, so they can afford to eat and live, or the rare occasions they indulge in a simple pleasure etc.

What I am really talking about is giving your characters active motives for making the big decisions in the narrative – why do they choose to be the people that they are and why do they choose to do what they do? Why would they choose to act selfishly in situation A but selflessly in situation B? Motivation is the driving force behind our characters. A change of motivation sees a once noble character become a mass murderer for the good of his people, or it can turn a convicted criminal into a hero when he rescues a child from a burning building.

So what sort of personal motivations are there? I have broken most scenarios in fiction into some basic groups. These aren’t just positive motivations either. Sometimes, villains do things out of a misguided belief that they are doing the right thing:

  • Love – of kin or for romantic love. Realising where his true loyalties lie, Darth Vader kills Emperor Palpatine to prevent him killing his son, Luke, and sacrifices himself in the meantime. Yet what he does in turning to the dark side in the first place was also arguably motivated by love for Padme
  • Redemption – Previously bad character proves himself / herself by rising to a challenge or helping someone in difficulty
  • Vengeance – In a perverse way, I think vengeance is a kind of redemption but I have chosen to list is separately because it is so rarely a good thing whereas redemption is rarely a bad thing. I do see them as incredibly similar though and perhaps, they are both related to love anyway
  • Altruism – Because it is the right thing to do, whether you have something to personally gain from doing it or not
  • For personal glory – Pretty straightforward I think. You want to look great or to prove yourself and you’ll either do it to conquer personal demons or to get a leg up by treading on everybody else.
  • The greater good – It is Frodo volunteering to be the ring bearer when nobody else wanted to do it. It is also Boromir’s motivation for wanting to take the ring. He felt that to seize it and to take it back to his father would be for the good of all of Middle Earth because the kingdom of men have the greatest power to fight back

I’ve found a few other websites and blogs that discuss this issue.

Tvtropes lists a substantial list but I think most classify under the above.
The Write Practice has some ideas and exercises you might try if you are stuck
Writer’s Digest discusses the importance of resentment and revenge

I have been giving a lot of thought to the motivations of my characters for accepting Vespasian’s mission to go into Germania. For the stoic Greek moneylender, it is so he can acquire enough money to return to Greece. For the owner of the Gladiator school, it is to save his ailing facility – the same motivation applies to his Jewish chief trainer. But deep down perhaps he wants acceptance from the Flavians – and perhaps if he can make a success of this, they might go easier on his Jewish brethren. Valens (a playboy) is running out of money as he has been reckless since winning his freedom. Once wealthy beyond his wildest dreams – he hopes he will be more sensible about it this time and maybe secure a future. Seneca is going because he was ordered to and perhaps, I might add a personal touch (a missing brother for example).

It is Nero I think that will have the most depth. The violent ne’er-do-well is always in trouble with the Praetorian Guards and categorically stated in the sample I posted that he would refuse the offer – but mysteriously accepted with little protest and without debate (while the others tried to make sense of it all). I have a few ideas for him – perhaps centred around an estranged wife, a daughter or both… or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. I haven’t quite decided yet but he will be the surprise element of the whole story. I am looking forward to working on this next year 🙂

What character motivations do you enjoy exploring? Can you think of any more motivations for doing things?


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