Motivation (moh-dih-VAY-shuhn) is the reason compelling a person’s actions and behaviors. In literature, it’s what drives a character’s goals and inclination to do something.
Plot used to be the focus of narratives before the 1800s. However, when realism emerged as a new literary technique, characters became the focus, and motivation became a critical component to bringing those characters to life.
Different Types of Motivation
In literature, there are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation deals with the internal desires of the character, including their spiritual and emotional well-being. For example:
- Getting revenge for a loved one
- Fitting into a social group
- Avoiding failure
- Preserving moral character
Extrinsic motivation deals with external desires, including physical needs. For example:
- Protecting themselves from physical abuse
- Finding food or shelter
- Surviving an illness
But this doesn’t mean a character is limited to one or the other. There can be more than one thing driving a character, or their motivation can change as the plot progresses. Oftentimes, this creates conflict if their motivations are at odds. In The Notebook, Allie is conflicted by her two motivations: fulfill her promise to marry the reliable Lon or follow her heart and marry the passionate Noah instead. This makes the plot interesting and reveals her character through the choice she eventually makes.
The Effects of Motivation
A writer uses motivation to make their characters relatable and realistic. It reveals the reasons behind a character’s actions so readers can understand why they do what they do. Are they positively or negatively motivated? Good or bad people?
Motivation also creates conflict when there’s an urgent reason underlying the character’s goals that makes them willing to do anything to achieve it. Readers then get to guess and see how far the character will go.
How to Determine a Character’s Motivation
The author doesn’t have to state a character’s motivations explicitly, but they usually make it obvious through dialogue, actions, and background.
For example, if Sarah takes her time every morning to make her bed, tuck in the corners, align every pillow and pick up a stray hair on the floor, readers can assume she cares about organization and cleanliness. If she’s invited to someone’s messy home later in the story, readers might guess she will become uncomfortable and make an excuse to leave—actions motivated by her desire to be in a clean environment.
Motivation in Crime Novels
Motivation plays an integral role in crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers because the murderer’s initially unknown motivation is what causes the mystery and intrigue. The reader tries to figure out this mystery alongside the detective to guess who the killer is before it’s revealed.
In Gillian Flynn’s crime/psychological thriller novel Gone Girl, Nick Dunne is suspected of killing his wife Amy, who disappeared on the night of their anniversary. When it is revealed that Nick has a mistress, police and public opinion believe this was his motivation for killing her. In a surprise twist halfway through the novel, Amy is actually alive and framing Nick for her murder. Her motivation is because she knows about his mistress, but she also wants to give Nick a chance to become the ideal husband—someone she can manipulate into meeting her every need.
Motivation Outside of Literature
Motivations in the Real World
People’s real-life motivations are determined by their needs. Behind every goal is a motivation, and behind every motivation is a need. For example, if one’s goal is to own a house one day, one of their motivations could be to become more financially stable, and behind that motivation is the need for safety and security.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who studied motivation in everyday life, grouped the most common needs and created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
1. Physiological: These motivations are the basic needs of the body for survival, including food, water, and shelter.
2. Safety and security: These are the need to feel protected from physical and emotional harm on a regular basis.
3. Love and belonging: These motivations underlie the need to feel part of a group or family, which will prevent feelings of isolation or loneliness.
4. Accomplishments and self-esteem: These are the need to feel purpose in life, both professionally and personally.
5. Self-actualization: This is the need to fulfill one’s deepest desires and achieve their biggest dreams.
According to this pyramid, a human’s needs are met in this order. People can’t focus on a higher-level motivation until the more basic needs have been met. For example, if someone lacks food or water, that will be their focus until it is satisfied. Then, they’ll be able to focus on the next need, such as safety, and so on.
Motivation in Television and Movies
Every character in any movie or television show has motivations that drive them forward. Lately, there’s been an influx of shows that focus on the motivation behind antagonists or “evil” protagonists.
Take the fantasy show Once Upon a Time. It delves into the motivations behind popular fairytale villains. In this show, instead of the Evil Queen being motivated to destroy Snow White out of jealousy, more backstory is provided that shows with an incident where Snow White is at fault. The Evil Queen’s motivation becomes revenge, rather than jealousy, making her both more believably evil and sympathetic.
Examples of Motivation in Literature
1. Cecelia Ahern, PS, I Love You
When readers first meet protagonist Holly Kennedy, her motivation is similar to most women her age: find success in a job she likes and security in her happy marriage. Once her husband Gerry is diagnosed with a fatal illness and passes away, her motivation changes to finding emotional security by holding onto his memory in any way possible. This drives her to open letters he left to her and follow their unorthodox instructions.
After reading his last letter, which gives her permission to love again, Holly must face the reality of moving on. Her motivation changes once more to seeking love elsewhere and giving another man a chance. These evolving motivations provide her with a satisfying character arc. She goes from a hopeful wife and a grieving widow to finally becoming a person willing to accept change.
2. Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Aboard a train to London, Ratchett, an American businessman, asks for Poirot’s protection after receiving death threats. Poirot refuses, but after waking to the news of Ratchett’s murder, he spends most of the novel trying to determine who, out of the remaining 13 passengers, did it.
It is soon discovered that Ratchett was living under a false identity and was actually an evil man who had kidnapped and killed a little girl. Poirot realizes Ratchett’s death was motivated by revenge, as well as an attempt to prevent the killer from hurting anyone else. Once Poirot discovers the killer, he decides to keep their identity a secret from the police because he believes the murder was justified. This is one of the rare novels where the reader can sympathize with the criminals by the end of the story.
Further Resources on Motivation
Well-Storied has an article on developing strong motivations for fictional characters.
Quora touches on how motivation relates to the plot diagram of any story.
This video by study.com provides movie examples of character motivation.
Learn more about motivation in literary fiction in this article by Story in Literary Fiction.