Make Your Character Motivation Understandable So Your Story Makes Sense

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I’ll be writing about the video Making Character Motivation Understandable, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

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.

Demonstrate Frustration

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.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!

Character motivation, JJ Barnes Art
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I'm author, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. I've always been passionate about stories, both on the page and on the screen, and now I'm lucky enough that I've been able to turn that passion into a career.

Myfirst novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit was the first release from Siren stories and launched the Siren Stories Universe (the SSU). Now there are multiple stories, on page and screen, all connected and exploring the world I first began to develop all those years ago. Find all my books here.

Hollowhood, the first independent film from myself and my writing partner, Jonathan McKinney, is currently in post-production. Making my own film has been an incredible experience and only affirmed my love of all things to do with film. From the camera to the costumes, I will always love everything about being on set.

As well as releasing my own stories, I'm hoping to spread love and passion for the art of story telling to others, by guiding you through different aspect of writing. I do a series of Writing Advice videos for adults, and a Creative Writing For Kids series, both on YouTube. I'm also releasing regular Writing Advice blog posts explaining different writing techniques and advice for how to get the most out of your writing experience.

Other than writing, my life is mostly spent with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, our three children, Rose, Ezekiel and Buffy, and our extremely foolish Springer Spaniel, Molly.

I love reading books, watching TV, and falling asleep during movies. When Jon comes to bed he usually finds me face down with my face on a book, or hiding under the duvet waiting for him to protect me because I've got myself in a dither reading a ghost story.

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