I’ve written about how your Protagonist and your Antagonist both have to be motivated to go after what it is that they want, but it’s important to remember that your audience has to understand why they want it. If they don’t understand why it matters, they’ll have a full disconnect with the character and stop caring if they achieve their goals.
When Character Motivation Doesn’t Make Sense
In Game of Thrones, throughout the series, Daenerys is demonstrated to be motivated to reclaim the Iron Throne, and to be a powerful leader. She considers herself worthy of loyalty and worship, and a true Queen. This is until suddenly Jon Snow seems to change her, and she starts expressing a desire to be worthy of him. She becomes motivated to prove herself to him, rather than expecting him to prove himself to her.
There has been no build up to this change, there seems to be no reason for this desire to be impressive, as she’s always considered herself impressive anyway. For the audience, there is a massive disconnect. We know she wants it; we know it matters to her, but we’ve been left out of the reason why it matters so it feels unnatural and we can’t fully believe in it.
Inexplicable character motivation is a frequent problem with Antagonists. You know they want to do something dastardly, such as destroy the world, but you don’t know why. Especially considering they live on it too.
Being active in pursuit of their goals is good, and what I will constantly tell you to do. But why it matters to them is just as important as having it matter in the first place. Inexplicable motivation is confusing and off-putting.
A simple way to explain character motivation is to show their frustrations. Something about their life and circumstances is frustrating them enough that they become motivated to change it. You can make any character’s motivations understandable if you can demonstrate how it came to matter to them. This can be achieved by showing them prior to taking action, the inciting incident being the moment they move from passive to active, or you can show it through flashbacks, or with conversations about it in their present circumstances.
As long as you take the time and care to make sure it’s clear why something matters to your character, you can make almost any action feel understandably motivated.
By grounding your audience in what motivates your characters, so even if they wouldn’t do something themselves or they actively disagree with the choice being made, they can at least feel connected to that character enough to understand why they’re doing something. Nobody feels like they’re acting randomly or just for the sake of moving your story forward without any thought put in as to why.
Different Kinds of Villain Character Motivation
The exception to the rule is when you come to villains who are designed to be horrifying or shocking. For instance, Joker in The Dark Knight is doing all kinds of things that he’s clearly very motivated to do, but you’re not given a reason that is understandable or relatable to most people. He’s an agent of chaos, and chaos and destruction are motivation enough.
If your character is a truly evil person who hurts people in brutal ways, if you demonstrate how they got to that point and explain their motivation, it can humanise them in a way that stops them being frightening.
However, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the villainous Kingpin is a dangerous man who is motivated to do terrible and destructive things, but one of the reasons the character is so interesting and captivating is because the root cause for that motivation is understandable; he misses his family and is grieving.
Having a base for the motivation that you understand and relate to, before he goes to extremes, means the audience can connect to the character more than if he seemed to just be doing something evil so that Spider-Man has a bad guy to fight.
Grounding Your Audience in Your Character
Giving your character something to pursue, and a reason for that pursuit, is a solid grounding for a good story. If your characters feel like they’re only doing something because you as the writer feel like writing about it, and there’s no other reason for them to behave in that way, your characters stop feeling real and your audience will stop caring.
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