We’ve all heard of Goal, Motivation and Conflict – aka GMC. It’s the skeleton of the story, the backbone that holds everything together.
In this article I’m going to cover Motivation. What is it and why do we need it?
Motivation explains “why” the character wants their specific goal, and why they act the way they do in any given situation. It’s what makes them unique individuals, and not simply cookie cutter characters that could inhabit any other book.
It’s often said that the hero and heroine don’t just suddenly start their lives on page one. Of course they don’t – they have a whole lifetime that’s shaped their outlook and emotions before Chapter One begins. And it’s by knowing what’s happened to our hero and heroine in their past that allows us to understand why they behave the way they do in the present – when the book opens.
The emotional journey they take during the story and the choices they make leading to their Happily-Ever-After, is their arc. The character’s growth is defined by how their motivation, because of the romantic relationship, changes in order to reach their internal goal.
It’s important that their motivation is crystal clear to the reader from the beginning because if a reader can’t understand why a character is doing something, they won’t feel connected to their journey. Here’s a quick example as to why.
Let’s say the heroine, Saffron, is a successful photographer, sought after by celebrities. She’s had a pampered upbringing and appears to have everything. Enter the hero, Jake, a hot rock star from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s disillusioned with his shallow lifestyle and falls for Saffron. He realises she is the one and wants to plan a future with her.
But Saffron doesn’t believe a word he says, rejects his love and acts like a totally spoiled ice princess.
Since Jake is not only hot and gorgeous but also stolen more than a little of the reader’s heart by this point, the reader will probably think Saffron is a complete bitch and lose all sympathy for her. The last thing they’ll want is for her to end up with the hero.
So the question is – why does Saffron act this way?
Because her father was a promiscuous rocker in a famous band who left her mother when Saffron was a baby. He made countless promises to Saffron throughout her childhood and broke them all. She’s not only been searching for love and stability all her life, she’s also been left with a severe lack of trust in men – especially men involved in the same business as her feckless father.
She is motivated by self-preservation, by the fear that if she opens herself up to Jake he’s going to hurt her in the same way her father did. She’s not simply a vessel to create tension and conflict with the hero in the story. She is a real person with real issues, and that is what drives her to act the way she does. In order to achieve her HEA, Saffron needs to confront these fears, face what has motivated her and make the decision to take a chance and trust Jake (her growth/character arc).
As Allison Butler says (The Border Laird’s Bride) we want readers to love our characters, flaws and all. “That’s why a character’s motivation is super important. Kenzie Irvine, my heroine in The Border Laird’s Bride is a thief. We all know stealing is wrong, but the motivation behind Kenzie’s stealing allows readers to forgive her by understanding the purpose that drives her to steal in the first place.”
Amanda Ashby (Demonosity) agrees that motivation is everything. “In Demonosity, my heroine Cassidy has no interest in saving the world and the only reason she agrees to protect a dangerous alchemist treasure from demon knights is because she’s worried her sick father will be in danger if she doesn’t. This is also the reason that she decides to use the treasure herself even though there’s a chance many people will be hurt (and that the guy she loves will never speak to her again).”
It’s also important that characters’ motivations are strong enough to gain and sustain readers’ sympathy. To have a hero treat the heroine with contempt simply because his previous girlfriend dumped him makes him, quite frankly, a bit of a jerk.
But let’s crank up the stakes. Suppose the hero had been in love with his previous girlfriend. That she was his fiancée. That he caught her cheating on him with his best friend or brother a week before the wedding. Maybe he discovered she was only marrying him for the prestige it would bring her.
Right. Now we have a whole raft of reasons as to why the hero would be distrustful of entering another committed relationship (still doesn’t give him the green light to act like a jerk though ) The way he avoids commitment is motivated by how his love was thrown back in his face and trust was abused in the past.
Sara Hantz’s YA hero Jed (In the Blood) goes out one night and gets blind drunk. He wakes up the next morning on a park bench covered in vomit. But, as Sara explains, “Despite this totally unheroic act it is understandable because his motivation is so powerful. He had just found out that not only was his father a pedophile but his grandfather was also one. Jed worried that it was something passed down through the generations and he could end up being one, too.”
The reader will accept what appears to be unheroic behaviour as long as the character’s motivation is clear to them. If they understand why the character behaves in such a way, then they will also empathise with the emotional turmoil the character experiences due to their choices.
Everything a character does is shaped by their past to some degree. The higher the stakes in the past, the more powerful the motivation is in the present.
This is something Cathryn Hein (Heartland) explores with her heroine, Callie, a damaged character whose life since her late teens has been determined by the tragedy of her sister Hope’s death. Cathryn explains, “For years she’s carried the overwhelming feeling that she doesn’t deserve happiness, and she certainly doesn’t deserve the farm she’s inherited, which is why Callie plans to betray her grandmother’s wishes and sell the place she adores.
She had to bear in mind the good the Hope Foundation could do with the sale money, how many girls they could educate about the dangers of drugs. Perhaps the money would even save a life, prevent another family from enduring the terrible suffering hers had. What better gift for her parents than a funding boost for the thing they held dearest, their daughter-substitute obsession? After all, her own attempts at being the perfect Hope had proved disastrous. She’d tried, so very hard in the early days, but it was a legacy Callie couldn’t live up to. But she could give them this, her most precious thing, and perhaps by doing so also assuage a little of her own guilt for not saving her sister that night.
This deep need for atonement is a powerful motivator that guides almost everything Callie does, even when those actions mean losing the very things she holds dear.”
My latest release, Her Savage Scot, is set in the Highlands during the ninth century and features a tough Scot warrior and a Pictish princess. The conflict is obvious – their peoples have been enemies for generations.
But although their respective heritages play a vital role in the book, it’s both Connor and Aila’s personal motivations that drive the story forward. Both have lost loved ones. Neither is looking for another relationship. But in spite of it all they fall in love.
Leaving aside the fact that Aila is a princess and Connor a mere foreign commoner – because this obstacle is a conflict in the path to their HEA, not driven by the characters’ motivation – why can’t they simply declare their love and be together?
Before Connor can tell Aila how he feels and ask for her hand, she pledges herself to a Scots prince. But the reader knows she is secretly in love with Connor. Why on earth would she agree to marry a man she’s never met?
This is why it’s vital that the reader understands the character’s motivation. Because although we know Aila loves Connor and dreams of a life with him, we also know she is desperate for peace in her land. As a young bride she witnessed the Vikings murder her husband, and vowed to do anything in her power to avenge his death.
When the Scots king offers an alliance between Scot and Pict against the Vikings, in return for a royal marriage, it’s the events and experiences in Aila’s past that compel her to choose a stranger as her husband. We, as readers, might not want her to travel that path but if the character’s motivation is strong enough and has been threaded throughout the story, then the reader will follow them.
As Michelle Diener (Banquet of Lies) says, your characters’ motivation is what drives your plot. “If their actions are weak or indecisive, or seem contrived to fit into the plot, then you risk the reader seeing through the curtain to the author behind, Wizard of Oz-like pulling levers and pressing buttons. What you want is solid, strong motivation that the reader can identify with and believe in, and when you have that, the story will take on a life of its own.”
In conclusion, our characters’ motivations are driven in the present by the experiences of their past. It is motivation that leads to the characters’ arcs, the reason why our characters grow during the course of the book. If their motivation remains rigid and unchanging throughout then they are exactly the same person they were on the final page as they were on page one.
Motivation is delicious and juicy. It’s what makes readers fall in love with our hero and heroine, sympathise with them and desperately want them to achieve their happily-ever-after, no matter how dire the odds. Give your characters strong motivation that readers can identify with and you will gain a reader for life
This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of Romance Writers of Australia’s monthly newsletter, Hearts Talk