In a previous article on writing, I talked about a character’s conscious goals, which drive the plot. But characters also need to have deeper motivations, something that makes them want to obtain their goal. They might not be aware of their underlying motivation, but you as the author need to know.
The German playwright Friedrich Hebbel once said, “In a good play, everyone is right.” It means that readers might not like the actions of a character and might not be able to relate to the character’s goal, but they should be able to understand and maybe even sympathize with the motivation.
For example, Griffin from Second Nature is a saru — a soldier who spies on humans and, if necessary, kills them. Not a very likable character, you might think. But I think readers can understand why she would agree to go on these kind of missions. She wants to ensure the survival of her species, which is on the brink of extinction.
So let’s take a look at motivation.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be a handy tool to understand your characters’ motivation. The hierarchy of needs has five levels.
On the bottom are the physiological needs that we need to survive: food, water, air, sleep. Next are safety needs, the need for shelter and for physical and financial security. Then come the social needs (love, friendship, belonging), followed by esteem needs (earning recognition, respect, accomplishments, and self-respect). At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the need to reach your full potential as a human being (truth, justice, wisdom, morality).
According to Maslow’s theory, the needs at the bottom must be satisfied before people pursue higher-level needs. For example, if you are fighting to stay alive, you aren’t concerned with making friends.
While I think Maslow’s hierarchy has its limits reflecting the complexity of human needs, it can be a helpful tool when you figure out what motivation is behind your characters’ goals.
Let’s see… In Second Nature, Jorie’s goal is to get her novel published. This goal might be motivated by her physiological and safety needs, after all, she’s a full-time writer and needs her royalties to put food on the table. But it’s also motivated by higher-level needs: the need to prove to herself and her mother that she can make it on her own (esteem needs).
You can also use different needs to create internal conflict. For example, in Hidden Truths, Rika’s initial motivation is safety. She wants to secure her future by marrying a man who thinks she’s his mail-order bride — which she is not. So in order to fulfill this need, she’d have to lie and pretend for the rest of her life, so the need for food and safety conflicts with the need for love (she doesn’t love her betrothed), self-esteem, and self-actualization. At one point of the story, she will need to choose between these conflicting needs.
You can read more about conflict in my other writing tips.
Created by Krystel Contreras & Jorge Courbis