WHY? THE HEART OF CHARACTER MOTIVATION

The truest anger or distress is conveyed by authors who actually feel anger or distress in their soul. Thus the best writers are those who are either highly gifted or insane.

—Aristotle, The Poetics

A good fiction author is at least one part psychologist, and a good psychologist doesn’t end with “I can’t stop…” or “I’m afraid of…” or “I have to…” A good psychiatrist will dig deeper, to get to the source of that feeling or compulsion, what that represents, what makes it better or worse, where and when it first manifested, and so on—what motivates that feeling or compulsion.

All fiction relies on well motivated characters. They are not only what drives a story, they’re also the primary emotional/psychological connection points for our readers. Motivation is, simply put, the reason a person does a thing. If you’re, say, a compulsive shopper and go to a therapist for help, a good therapist won’t just say, “Oh, just don’t buy so much stuff,” and leave it at that. A good therapist will want to help you uncover why you shop compulsively. What motivates that compulsion? What hole in your life are you filling with whatever it is you’re buying?

So then if a character is…? You tell me: Determined to seize control of the empire or the whole world—or the whole galaxy? Hell-bent on revenge against anyone? Trying to steal the thing or the stuff or the money? Whatever that character, hero or villain, wants or needs, ask:

What caused that, what reinforced it, and why?

The importance of the why behind the what goes equally for hero, villain, monster… anything with individual agency, anything that can think beyond: “Hungry. Bite.” In Writing Monsters, discussing the intersection between a monster and a villain or hero, I advised:

The creation of [a monstrous] villain—or hero, as the case may be—should begin with the character first. If this sentient monster is going to be your story’s villain, build the villain first. What does he/she/it want? What is the ultimate goal? What drives this character forward: why him, why here, why now? 

I tend to define story as “characters in conflict.” Every story is about people, even if those people aren’t actually human. The rabbits in Watership Down are people. Spock and Worf from Star Trek are people. 

Dracula is a person. 

Once you have a handle on your villain’s motivation, start building his or her monstrous side on that foundation. Ask yourself: How does this character’s monstrous qualities help move my story forward? How does the monster’s strengths complicate the hero’s efforts, and how can the hero exploit the monster’s weaknesses? 

You’ll have to forgive my admittedly old fashioned reliance on the terms “hero” and “villain.” Please feel free to substitute “protagonist” and “antagonist”… whatever makes sense for what you’re writing, but again, story is characters in conflict, so one way or another we have at least one character at odds with at least one other character—and all the variations on that theme imaginable including multiple characters residing in the same body, one, some or neither being something other than human… you tell me. Also from Writing Monsters:

So when crafting your own monsters, keep their motivations in mind, just as you would a human character, and think of the varied ways they can express those motivations. My dog can’t tell me in words how he feels, but he clearly conveys emotions, desires, and so on through nonverbal communication. Does your monster have an impulse to change? A desire for redemption? Is this monstrous agent of the villain only acting in that capacity because the villain is holding something over it? Is this monster attacking because it’s trying to protect its young, as does the horta in the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”? It could very well be that the way for your heroes to “defeat” the monster is by understanding it, helping it, rescuing it, sending it home… rather than simply killing it. 

But in any case, for a villain or antagonist, motivation distilled to: “because he’s crazy,” or maybe even worse: “because she’s evil,” is not going to be enough—not anymore, anyway. Ramsey Campbell wrote on the subject of evil in his On Writing Horror essay “Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death”:

Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won’t do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust. Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless—something vague out there that causes folk to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us. That sounds to me more like an excuse than a definition, and I hope it’s had its day. If we’re going to write about evil, then let’s define it and how it relates to ourselves.

Evil, like good, is specific to an individual and is something that comes from deep inside, from a mix of nature and nurture, and is visible in that individual’s speech and deeds. And often, the worst acts are perpetrated not by someone with “evil intent,” but by someone with perfectly benevolent intentions who somehow screws up, misinterprets, acts out of fear or some other personal weakness. Daniel Abraham, in “The Aspects of Epic,” put it this way:

We wind up imagining the world through a particular lens, and as writers we’re imagining a person and imagining those moments and trying to capture them, and trying to transcribe them in a way that other people will understand. That’s the fun part of the gig. There’s this universality of experience, right? Where you think, ‘Okay, well, she’s doing this thing; if I were not my best self, and I were in the same place, how would I fuck up?’ I look back at the earlier stages of my life, when I was inappropriately infatuated with somebody: what kind of asshole did that make me? What vulnerability did I have in that moment? What anger in that moment, and what resentment came out of that? How did my feelings present? As a writer, you mine all of that.

And for me it comes down to one word:

Why?

My hero wants this… but why?

My villain wants the other thing… but why?

They can’t possibly avoid coming into conflict with each other because… why?

And though I suppose it’s possible to craft too complex an answer to that seemingly simple question, I’d say the more complex—the more human, the more vulnerable, the more relatable—you make that why, the better.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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