291 – Compelling Character Motivations
Why is your hero doing what they’re doing? Do you know? Do they know? If not, then you might have a problem with character motivation, but don’t worry, we’re here to help. This episode is all about figuring out what drives your character, what pushes them out onto the path of adventure. Or what pushes them off the path of adventure and into their hobbit hole, as the case may be. We’ll discuss how motivations work, what they need, and where they can go wrong. Plus, a return of the long-absent Discworld Corner!
Generously transcribed by Olivia SB. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, I’m Chris and with me is:
Chris: And you know we’re getting close to our 300th episode.
Wes: Ooh, alright.
Chris: We’ve been doing this for years, and for years we’ve been doing this every single week, and is our motivation really believable?
Oren: Absolutely not, what motivation do we have for doing this?
Wes: We’re getting the big bucks, right?
Oren: I mean, getting paid isn’t great motivation for a character, unless they need the money for something- just like, “I would like to have more money,” isn’t very good motivation, and we’re not even getting money, so what even is our motivation?
Wes: We’re not getting money for this? You guys told me there would be money.
Oren: Whoops, I mean, yeah, definitely, at some point in the future, undefined, in a way that we are legally not responsible for.
Chris: Look Wes, we’re paying you in exposure.
Wes: Oh no. Oh boy. Well, we’ll just have to see what happens. My motivations might have to change.
Chris: So yeah, this time we’re covering compelling character motivations. So, why motivation? I can just not put in motivation, right?
Oren: Yeah, you just don’t need it, it’s fine, whatever- characters just do things Chris, people just do things, it’s just real life.
Wes: I thought of a funny anecdote, if you don’t know anything about a character’s motivation, is like if, let’s say, I just don’t know you two at all, and I go out on a hike and I see you two, and you’re just dueling and I watch you duel. And I’m like, “Okay, there’s just two random people dueling. Awesome. I’ll pay attention because they’re dueling in the forest. Great.” And then one of you smites the other one down and I’m like, “Okay, great.” But I don’t know if that’s the villain or the hero or if they’re both bad or both good and, I guess maybe the point is that that conflict might hold my interest for a bit, but if I don’t care why you’re doing it, I might just carry on.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, hopefully you might be wondering why someone just got stabbed in the middle of the woods (!)
Wes: I said you had smitten or smote, or something like that, whatever the smite tense is.
Chris: It is hard to make something matter without motivation or, more like, if something matters, that generates motivation, right, whereas if you don’t have motivation, it almost certainly means that nothing will feel like it matters.
Oren: Motivation is part of that good old human drama that you need in stories, because- whatever, I’ve seen sword fights. I’ve seen space battles, I’m sure yours are very nice and I would love to see them, but if I don’t have a reason why this is happening in some terms that matter to me as a human, then I don’t care. You know, especially since it’s a book, I can’t even see it. If I wanted to watch meaningless action, I would go watch a movie, which I don’t really want to, but if I did, I have that option and it is superior to getting it in a book.
Chris: I will also say that giving your character a clear and consistent motivation will also help clean up inconsistent behavior. I mean, it’s not a surefire way to make their behavior 100% consistent, but if they continually act on an ongoing motivation, it can eliminate some of that, like, “Wait a second, why are they doing this now? You know, last chapter they were trying to do the opposite thing.”
Wes: I really like how that’s kind of a consistent problem with open world video games. There’s a really intense motivation for the character to go do the main quest, but hey, it’s open world, so take your time. Like, dragons might be threatening all of Skyrim, but you don’t have to go tell the Jarl about that, you can just go hang out, you know, get a homestead.
Oren: Are y’all ready for some big words, because that is called Ludonarrative dissonance.
Wes: What, that has a name? Cool!
Oren: Yeah, it has a name. Ludonarrative refers to the narrative that is produced by the actual game play, as opposed to the story being told by the dialogue and the narration, if there is narration, right? It’s what the game promotes you to do, as opposed to what the game is telling you is happening. And this is like, in most RPGs, you hit this phase where there’s a super urgent threat, but you have a million side quests to do, and the game is encouraging you to do those side quests, right, and that’s called Ludonarrative dissonance. So, welcome to that.
Wes: That’s awesome.
Chris: Another reason I think motivation is important is to make characters more proactive and give them more agency. If they don’t have a clear motivation it’s way too easy for random events to happen to them without ever putting them in the driver’s seat. Whereas if there’s something they actively want, it’s a lot more likely that that character will steer the plot, which is really important for protagonists.
Oren: And I mean, if you won’t take it from me, take it from Kurt Vonnegut, I think one of his most useful rules of storytelling was that every character should want something. And that’s not the only thing that you need to do, but it is important. If your character doesn’t want anything then why am I reading about them?
Wes: Oh but it’s the reluctant hero who just needs to be pushed to greatness.
Oren: Look, even reluctant heroes want things, okay.
Wes: To be left alone!
Oren: You know, to use the obvious example, Luke Skywalker wants to stop the Empire, but he’s still reluctant because he has commitments, right? And Frodo Baggins wants Sauron to not take over. But you know, he also has some conflict because he wants to stay in the Shire where it’s comfy and he has food.
Wes: There’s multiple breakfasts at stake.
Oren: If Frodo literally just didn’t care if Sauron took over, he was just like, “Yeah, whatever, I’m neutral in this conflict, I’m on nobody’s side because nobody’s on my side,” if he just literally had no investment in that, can you imagine what a weird book that would be?
Chris: Can you imagine them just like, “Frodo, you have to carry the ring because nobody else can carry it, and I know you don’t care, but we’re just going to badger you until you come along with us on this journey”? That would be a really disappointing book.
Wes: Oh my God, he’d be like, “Yeah, we heard that hobbits can tolerate its temptation pretty well. So it’s you, you don’t have a choice.”
Chris: But it’s a problem at the beginning of Going Postal, the Discworld book. Oh no, I’m criticizing Discworld!
Wes: How dare you?
Chris: Later it does turn around, but in the very beginning the main character, Moist, is just roped into becoming the head of the postal service and he doesn’t want to do it. And so there’s a golem that follows him around, and when he tries to escape just brings him back- he doesn’t really have any agency at all. And later we see him actually become interested in the post office’s problems and in troubleshooting how to fix them. But in the beginning I find that pretty unsatisfying because he’s just being dragged around and he doesn’t have any agency and he doesn’t actually want to be there or want to do anything.
Oren: Right. And first, before he decides he wants to help the post office, he first goes through this phase of like, “Well, okay, I want to get out of this, and the way that I get out of this is by doing what Vetinari says until I have a chance to escape,” which, I mean, you could have just made that happen a little earlier. It’s not as bad in the movie because him trying to escape is condensed down into a montage, as opposed to taking up a significant amount of space in the text.
Chris: Or if in the beginning he had just accepted that, “Okay, they put a magic device on me. I can’t escape, and I might not want to do this job, but I do have a motivation, that’s wanting to live and earn my freedom, and so I’m going to take this off.”
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s as good a moment as any to say, he’s motivated by not wanting to- I mean, Vetinari gives him a chance to run the post office or basically jump to his death, if I’m recalling correctly. And so he’s motivated by a desire to stay alive, in that moment, and it’s not like, you know, when we talk, I worry that when we talk a lot about motivations, it’s like, they need to do the grand narrative, but what they also need in moments, like survival narratives- they need food or they want their security or their freedoms, that’s also important motivation also. And so he’s motivated by things that don’t sustain the whole narrative at the start, but eventually his motivation shifts into something compelling for the entire arc, where he does really want to save the post office.
Chris: It’s worth mentioning that a character can have motivation and be reactive. Like if a monster attacks the character and the character runs away, they are acting on motivation. So I think productivity helps, but it’s not necessary.
Oren: So I think it should be noted that Moist is a bit of an unusual character. First, he’s kind of a funny guy. And if your character is funny, that helps sustain what would otherwise be a less compelling motivation. Because you know, his motivation is that he doesn’t want to do an important job, which is not that compelling, but because he’s funny, it kind of works.
Chris: I mean, it didn’t work for me.
Oren: I’m not talking about the part where he’s running away and being grabbed, I agree that doesn’t really work. I’m talking about after that, when he’s accepted that he can’t run away, and now his motivation is to try to get out of this by doing stuff. And for most characters that would not be super compelling, cause he just wants to save his own skin from doing an important job. But because he’s a kind of comic character, Pratchett builds up a lot of likability in other ways.
Chris: What it means is that even if the tension is not particularly high and attachment might be missing, there’s still novelty.
Oren: Whereas if he was a more serious character, he would just be, I think, kind of insufferable, which brings me to an interesting example from a book I’m reading that I just by coincidence happened to start the other day when we were deciding on topics, called The Priory of the Orange Tree. So, spoilers.
Wes: The Priory of the Orange Tree?
Chris: Yeah, you’re going to mention this again when we talk about titles, right?
Oren: I am, but I’m not going to talk about its title right now.
Wes: Okay, then I will not either.
Oren: Alright so, this book has four POV characters so far- I’m only seven chapters in, there might be more- and only one of them has a compelling motivation. And the first one is the one I want to talk about right now, which is the, who I’ve taken to calling ‘asshole dragon rider’, because I can’t remember any of the characters’ names, and this dragon rider character- she’s not actually a dragon rider yet, she’s in training to be a dragon writer, but that’s her entire motivation is that she wants to be a dragon rider, and her only reason is that being a dragon rider is cool.
Oren: That on its own is not super compelling because the only thing at stake is whether or not she will get to be a dragon rider. Now, there are ways you could make that more compelling, you could make her disadvantaged in some way or show that the system is stacked against her, and then we would cheer her, because we want her to overcome those odds, but that’s not the case. She’s like at the top of her class, when we meet her- I suspect that in the author’s mind, she’s disadvantaged because of her backstory, which has how she went through some problems. But when we actually meet her, she’s at the top of her class, there’s no reason to think she won’t become a dragon rider, it feels already kind of in the bag. But that’s her entire character motivation, and so she’s extremely boring.
Chris: So we’re supposed to be invested in this because we want an asshole character to get candy?
Oren: I should say the reason I call her an asshole is because at the beginning of the story, the first thing she does when we meet her is that she finds a guy who’s not supposed to be there and he’s trespassing, but she isn’t supposed to be there either, so she can’t turn him in. So instead she foists him off on some other guy promising to pay him and is then planning to anonymously call the cops on them later to get them both in trouble.
Oren: That’s a real jerk move, but that really has nothing to do with her story, which is another problem, is that the four characters are completely separate from each other, but that’s a separate issue. The main issue is that she’s a serious character, so she’s very low on novelty, and she is full of candy, because she’s the best dragon rider in her class, and her objective is that she wants to succeed at her class, which, as far as I can tell, she probably will do that. It’s just a very boring motivation. She’s not trying to do anything that I actually care about. She isn’t trying to overcome any serious odds. There isn’t any kind of unfair problem she has to deal with. She’s not trying to help anyone else. Which are all things you would do to make this motivation more compelling. And I just brought that up because I thought it was a good comparison to Lipwig, who is in a sort of similar situation, in that I don’t inherently care about what he’s trying to do, but because he’s a funny character, he has high enough novelty to kind of get me through that part until when he actually becomes more compelling.
Wes: The premise is also just better in Going Postal. It’s ‘con man forced to work a government job’, instead of ‘valedictorian who’s, I don’t know, going to dominate class and ride dragons.’ Okay.
Oren: Yeah. ‘Valedictorian is going to do well at college’ is basically the premise.
Wes: That’s very much one of those, like, “Let me guess, you’re a bender,” “Yeah, bending’s awesome” moments. Thanks Korra (!)
Oren: Yeah, that’s a good moment for Korra.
Chris: So, maybe we want to discuss the fact that the audience has to know what the protagonist’s motivation is.
Oren: Well, that’s also a problem in this book. This is actually the third POV character. I call her the secret ninja because she’s protecting the queen from assassins, but the queen doesn’t know that she’s there. And for several chapters the book doesn’t explain that. It’s like, ‘How are, why are you here? Why are you protecting the queen? What is happening?” And then when it finally does explain that she’s from a secret magic order that’s centered to protect the queen, it’s like, “It still doesn’t tell us why she’s doing that!” I have some guesses about how it might be some kind of religious thing, but I shouldn’t have to guess, okay, I should know this, this is basic information.
Chris: Yeah, you absolutely have to know why the protagonist is doing what they’re doing, because if you don’t know, you don’t know the stakes of the conflict that they’re in, because the whole point is that they’re motivated to achieve some goal, whether it’s just staying alive or earning their freedom or making the post office run better. And if you don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, you don’t know what the consequences for failure are or any of that stuff. And so there’s just no tension. And also it’s really hard to empathize with the character when their reasoning and why they’re doing what they’re doing isn’t knowable.
Oren: As an editor this is a problem I deal with all the time, where authors think that denying us basic information about the character makes them intriguing and cool. And it doesn’t, it just means I don’t care. You need to tell us these things, there’s no benefit to hiding it. And I just, I see this over and over and over again, and this is just a particularly bad version of it, because this is the entire reason why the character is doing stuff.
Wes: Especially if it’s the protagonist, you’re allowed some secrecy with the antagonists, as is your right, but come on guys. And also that doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody needs to just spell it out explicitly, but, in Oren’s book situation, there could be a whole host of environmental factors that could more or less spell it out for readers, if there were a series of hurdles that the character had to go through as part of coursework or there was a larger conflict that required more resources or effort, or something like that in the world building to shape it for you and make a motivating path more clear. Those are all things you can do.
Chris: Right. Like if a monster attacks the character and the character runs away, you don’t have to spell out that their motivation is to live, right? Sometimes context makes it clearer, but often context doesn’t make it clear and you have to make some effort to explain. I mean, usually if it’s your viewpoint character, you can just do that in a narration. But you know, sometimes if it’s a side character, you might need some kind of dialogue or something like that. With antagonists, yes, their motivation can absolutely be secret, but unfortunately that just encourages storytellers to not choose one. So they just do like random things that seem mysterious and threatening and then at the end of the story you’re trying to figure out why they did everything they did. So I would just say about antagonists, they should still have one. Ideally it would be a motivation that doesn’t take a monologue at the end of the story to explain.
Wes: Along with pulling off the mask.
Chris: Right? That would be good. But again, a lot of storytellers just have trouble getting into the mindset of the villain and making their villain consistent and, you know, feel believable.
Oren: And one of the basic requirements of motivation that I see even sometimes published books fail is that they need to want something they don’t have, and they need to be able to do something to get it. That doesn’t mean they should automatically succeed. That’s bad. There should be obstacles in their way that they have to overcome, of varying difficulty, depending on how tense you want your story to be. But they need to want something and not have it, because otherwise this is just a day in the life, right? There’s just no reason to read about this particular moment because nothing out of the ordinary is happening. It’s just regular things. And at that point, the only reason to read the story is because of its spec fic elements or maybe its clever wordcraft. And you know, I’ve seen all those things before, so there’s not a particular reason why I need to see yours, and that’s a serious problem in books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, where there are lots of characters and most of them don’t want anything, so they’re just around.
Chris: I mean, I think the important thing about wanting something that they don’t have but there’s a path to achieving it, is because that moves the story forward, right? What you don’t want is a character that wants something and doesn’t have it, but they’re just helpless and they don’t have any way to achieve it so they just stand around waiting for something to change. That’s not movement in the plot, it’s going to be frustrating, it’s going to be boring.
Oren: Right. That’s a lack of agency,
Chris: A big mistake that I see, well, not the biggest mistake, but a common mistake that I see for motivation is actually that you need one fairly simple, easy to understand motivation. That’s actually better than four motivating factors. Like if you’re explaining why your character is doing what they’re doing, one reason is better than four. And I know that seems strange, but if you give four, that’s just confusing. It’s not clear. And often I think also when storytellers are motivated to give that many reasons it’s because they don’t have one good one, and so they’re trying to spend extra time justifying it by throwing more little reasons on the pile.
Oren: Right, and usually the reason you should avoid doing that is because the more motivations you throw in, the bigger the chances are that you will change the context somehow, and that confuses people. That’s like, “Wait, okay, I thought you wanted to do that for this reason, but no, now you’re saying you want to do it for this reason?” That like changes the entire context of the story. And there’s not really any reason to do that, because adding more weak reasons doesn’t actually make the motivation compelling.
Wes: That single primary reason is just, it’s completely connected to the through line of the story. And you can have smaller ones, but you should treat those on a scene by scene basis, like if a bear shows up, you know, like we’ve talked about, but if you don’t have that single motivation serving as a compass, then you’re going to get thrown into weird situations. I think a good example of a single motivation is the first Hunger Games book, The Hunger Games. Katniss is motivated by survival and wanting to make sure that her family can survive as well, and so we see her in the beginning of that story surviving, and then choosing to help her sister survive by taking her place in the Hunger Games, and then needing to win the Hunger Games to survive herself and provide for her family. The scale increases but there’s still this basic- she’s not looking for self actualization or some kind of MacGuffin, she’s just trying to live and help the people she loves live. That’s such a basic motivation, but it’s consistent through the story, which is good.
Oren: So you’re right, I would make one small adjustment, which is that I think, from reading the book, it’s more that those are two consecutive motivations. Her reason for volunteering as tribute, other than to create one of the most iconic movie lines ever spoken, is to save her sister. And after that I think her motivation is to survive. Her family does get extra food because she was taken, but I think at that point her family is no longer really a concern, she’s just trying to live. If The Hunger Games was one of those stories that throws in lots of secondary motivations to try to make up for not having a strong one, it would be kind of like, “Well, Katniss is going into the Hunger Games and she wants to prove that she’s the best archer.” And then later she’s like, “You know, it’s really important to me to get back at those jerks from District Two, I just hate those jerks in District Two,” and then in another scene she’d be like, “You know, it’s really the show, I want to put on a good show for the people in the Capitol, because I want to be on TV.”
Chris: It’s how many explanations you have for the same thing. We talked about this when we were covering The Witcher, where there’s a question of why Yennefer wants a baby, and this is a very unintuitive thing. There’s no context why Yennefer in particular would really want a baby, it doesn’t seem to fit her lifestyle. And we get a whole bunch of different miscellaneous, kind of weak explanations for why she wants a baby, and it’s for the same thing, whereas you can definitely have a side arc that has its own motivation behind it, but if you give more than one explanation for the same character behavior then you have a problem.
Oren: Right, first they’re like, “Oh, well I just want to be loved,” and other times they’re like, “It’s because they took the ability to have children from me,” and other times it’s because, “Well, I feel bad for not saving that other baby, so I need to have my own baby.” The explanation seems to change depending on what scene we’re in.
Chris: Another thing that I think is good for motivation is, it’s not that you can’t have a more general and abstract motivation, but you need to be able to boil it down to something specific, like, hearing a character who’s like, “I just want to tear down the world and build from its ashes,” it’s like, “What does that even mean, how are you going to do that? It’s just so vague, and I don’t believe you, that that’s actually going to be constructive for you anyway, or that anybody would want to do that.” Whereas if you had a character that was specifically, “I want to destroy this government, for the purpose of then building X instead,” that would feel a lot more believable.
Wes: Characters with super vague motivations generally come across as somewhat incompetent because they’re like, “I’m going to do this thing, and then a thing I want will happen.” And it’s like, how is that going to happen though, I don’t see the causal relationship, and so it’s just better to be very specific.
Chris: But I do think it’s worth mentioning that, especially when we’re coming to character arcs and relationship arcs, you can have very emotional motivations and then show how that manifests in more concrete behavior. For instance, a character could have a motivation to find meaning in their life, to justify themselves or an action that they took that was bad and then trying to justify why it was fine, they might be motivated with desire to feel love and belonging- you know, all of those, like really emotional motivations could be a great starting place for a lot of those more internal arcs, but then you just need to connect it to their behavior. For instance, Yennefer again. I think that looking for purpose in her life is probably the best explanation for why she wanted a baby. What happens by the end of season one is that she seems to give up on that because she finds a different purpose. So, thinking that- again, you can have these misguided characters where they have one, you know, issue that they’re trying to solve, and then they latch onto something that they think will solve their problem, but it’s not actually the right solution to their problem. So in this case, Yennefer was looking for a purpose in her life or she wants to be needed, or she has some, you know, emotional issue, she thinks that a baby will solve that, make her feel like she’s needed or give her purpose. Then she finds another more constructive purpose in her life, and then feels like, “Now, no, I don’t need to have a baby just to feel needed.”
Oren: I will also say that if you are looking for ways to make your character more likable and more engaging, giving them a motivation to help others is just a very good way to do that.
Oren: A selfless motivation is just a great way to make people like a character. It’s not the only way, but it’s almost a cheat code, is how effective it is. Now there are ways to do it wrong- you can have a character who’s like, “I want to help others,” and never shuts up about it. And then they just seem kind of insufferable, even if they actually do want to help others, or you could have a character who wants to help others but in a way that is so unrealistic that it just seems like they’re kind of deluding themselves.
Chris: I want to say the biggest pitfall with that I see is people who want to help others, but their method of doing that doesn’t actually involve personally giving anything up. They could be a leader character who’s then like- this is what happens in The Dragon Prince, where we have one or two monarchs, I don’t remember the exact situation, that are like, “Hey, this other kingdom’s in need, they’re out of food and needing our help.” And it’s like, “Well, we need every last grain of wheat to feed our own people, but sure, let’s give them half of what we have.” It’s like, I doubt you monarchs are personally going to be starving, you’re just making your people and people suffer instead, that’s not giving up something appropriate to help somebody else. Or, if it costs them absolutely nothing and it seems like it’s super easy it just doesn’t mean much.
Oren: That’s the Grace of Kings scene that we always like to talk about where there’s this rude dude who’s like, “I’m going to have my save the cat moment,” where some lady is being hassled and he gets in there and stops it. But clearly it was just super easy and didn’t cost him anything. And so now it’s just like, okay, well that was meaningless. It also doesn’t seem like something you would do based on your character previously, but even putting that aside, it’s just like, that meant nothing. It was just something you did for funsies. Like if it wasn’t hard to accomplish, then it was kind of meaningless.
Chris: And then of course there’s always the plot convenient motivations. Which can happen when a writer’s really trying to get something done with their plot and they end up trying to make a character do things that they would not realistically do. And in some of these situations I think that a good solution- this is process advice, so it may not work for everybody- but sometimes making sure that you’re in touch with where your character is at and what their feelings would be in their current situation can just be a good testing case for whether or not what they’re doing is feasible. Like sometimes there’s just no realistic motivation for them to do something and you have to change your plot. But you know, my advice for that is to just look at the situation and write down external facts- don’t talk about their feelings- just write down externally what’s happening in the story, but write down specifically things that might make them feel a certain way. If you know, you’re trying to decide how afraid would they be of this villain, write down what has happened in the story that would reasonably make them afraid- you know, the villain kidnapped their little sister or the villain managed to follow them around all day, and they didn’t know until the very end or they didn’t know until other people pointed it out- things that would reasonably make somebody afraid, or whatever your motivation is. And just put down those concrete, specific happenings that are external to the character and that can give you like, “Okay, do they actually have justification for feeling this way or not?” And that can help with some of that plot convenience.
Oren: And that’s how you avoid the end of Game of Thrones!
Oren: All right, well, I think that’ll just about do it for this episode. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek, next we have Ayman Jaber, who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel, and finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com, and I don’t know what motivates all of them to contribute to Mythcreants each month, but I’m glad that they do, so thank you to them, and we will talk to you all next week.
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening and closing theme, ‘The Princess who Saved Herself’, by Jonathan Coulton.