You hear it all the time. Your characters need to be motivated to pick up that sword and slay the dragon, venture to a distant galaxy, or figure out why there’s a dead body at the bottom of the well.
What motivates your character to do what they need to do in your story?
Strip away the story for a second. Let’s get back to your character before your story starts.
Before she needed to grasp the sword, before he climbed into the rocket, before she lowered herself in the well to study the corpse.
Who is this person—at the core? How motivated was he or she--in general? As a person?
Was she ambitious to begin with? Or filled with ennui? Where did she draw motivation to, say, go to college or get a job? No, really, what drives her to get out of bed in the morning and go pursue her dream? Any dream?
And is it her own dream? Or a course charted by a parental unit? Family pressure? Family influence?
I’m thinking about all of this because I recently met a guy who was successful and highly visible for a long period of time.
And then, wham.
I mean, he got creamed. He was below down and he was below out. He had made some mistakes. He over-extended himself. He went completely belly up. He owed millions of dollars. It was a bleak scene. It took several years, but he’s picked himself back up. And now he's making another run at big-time business success.
He can trace his character and grit back to his parents and how he was raised. It’s such a key part of his life, how he absorbed what they taught him about how to approach that big wide world.
Why does anybody want to do anything?
That’s a common refrain of Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. “Murph,” the Asphalt Warrior (star of eight novels to date). Murph, the creation of the late Gary Reilly, lives a very alternative lifestyle. He questions capitalism, even the need for much of an income. How many people do you know who share that worldview?
With his idiosyncratic ways, Murph reminds me of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, one of the most memorable novels I read in college, and Herman Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener. Oblomov is incapable of doing anything significant. In the first 50 pages, he only moves from his bed to his chair. Told you. Great story.
And Bartleby declines most of the work assignments he’s given, even when the consequences mount.
Murph, Oblomov and Bartleby have their reasons. They are three-dimensional human beings.
Their lives are fascinating on their own because their sheer essence cuts against the grain of what’s acceptable.
Ignatius Reilly, also, the central character in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
Ignatius Reilly: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” Yes, to varying degrees, these four are anti-social.
The vast majority of fictional characters are not.
Before the inciting incident that interrupts your character's routine life, who was this person? What got them up in the morning?
I don’t think it hurts, at a very fundamental level, to understand the answer to that question.
So your character stands out from the crowd.
Final thought from George Carlin: “Actually, if you ask me, this country could do with a little less motivation. The people who are causing all the trouble seem highly motivated to me. Serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I’m not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who’s lying in bed all day, watching TV … and I’ll show you a guy who’s not causing any trouble.”