Taking a Cue on Character Motivation

Think theater for a few minutes. Whether you’ve been an audience member, a performer, or a director, you’ll probably agree that theater is pretty cool because it’s so alive—a story with breath and energy propelled forward in time, right before your eyes.

Where does that breath and energy come from? What’s driving the story?

Close your eyes; envision a stage. A big, fancy proscenium theater from a hundred years ago or a stark blackbox in some college building’s basement, doesn’t matter.

Put two actors on your stage. Paint them with some characterization: age, gender, family stuff, looks, likes. Give them a quick setting and given circumstances. Drama showcases conflict, so give your two characters a problem to solve.

Now what? Pretty boring if they just stand there looking at each other, right? Someone has to do something.

And then, the other one is going to react to what the first one did.

Action—the doing of things—pushes the story in a play. Here’s the secret to acting, and consequently, theater, in two parts:

Acting is doing. And acting is reacting.

The connection to writing, and the importance of these concepts to us as authors, are what I’d like to chat about in this post.

First, acting is doing. It isn’t “being” some mood or “feeling” some emotion—it’s all in the doing. The actions can be as consequential as stabbing the king, or as trivial as making lemonade. For an action to be natural, it has to be motivated. In theater, we say  “No movement without a purpose!” Every bit of motion and staging has to come from some good reason, or you shouldn’t do it.

This is true of your book, too.

Your characters shouldn’t make an aimless move. It might be a lovely sunset to walk a meadow, in which you elaborate upon the silky grasses waving and the swish of the heroine’s skirt. But is she there with a purpose that advances the plot? What’s her motivation for strolling said meadow?

If there’s no goal, she should probably forget the meadow and do something instead.

But maybe she’s out walking so that she can plan the theft of her neighbor Stan’s prize chickens, to sell them to have money to heal her sick child—then yes! Meadow loveliness makes a good juxtaposition for that complex motivation, while showing us three-dimensional characterization. She’s doing something, and look at everything the reader is being shown (instead of told).

To help ensure your scenes are based in natural motivations, let your characters always pursue the objective.  In theater, when asked “What’s your objective?”, we DON’T say “to be sad/mad/joyful/frightened.” Instead, we train actors to state objectives

1. in an infinitive action verb structure


2. in terms of another character

In your head, as you plot and draft, try phrasing your characters’ objectives this way to better know their motivations, and choose actions that allow them to directly pursue the objective. What’s the heroine’s objective in the above scene? “To scheme the theft of prize chickens from Stan.” To scheme is an action verb in the infinitive, and it’s stated in terms of another character (Stan).

What’s the main character’s objective for stabbing the king? To move himself up into King Duncan’s position of power. (Title character in Macbeth)

What’s the main character’s objective in making lemonade? To prove to her sister Lenny that she’s clear-minded enough for an everyday task. (Babe in Crimes of the Heart)

If you are stuck for ideas on getting from Point A in your book to Point B, try spring-boarding from motivation. What does Character X want? The answer is his/her objective. What is Character X going to do to get what he/she wants? He/she does this, this, and that. Now, write the scene that shows these actions.

The awesome part about focusing on an objective that impels natural action is that…

Acting is reacting, too. Actors on stage are trained to develop characters who listen, look, watch, and wait for what’s being said and done by the other character(s), and then—it’s time to react. And everything in the reaction will stem from that character’s motivations and how they’ve changed or strengthened in light of what the other character has said or done. Boom, new objective. Boom, new actions, new schemes, new tactics. Boom, action takes place…and then boom, it’s the first character’s turn to react.

It’s a constant climb on this ladder, all throughout a play…and a novel. She’s motivated to do this, so he’s motivated to do that. Tension increases, conflict mounts, and suspense and emotion heighten… in ways that progress naturally toward the end of the story.

Jenn is a writer and teacher in southwestern PA. She writes middle grade historicals with a twist of magical realism.