In any story, a character must do something. A character who just bobs along on the current of everyone else’s actions and decisions isn’t worthy of being in your story, and definitely isn’t worthy of leading your story.
Even if this character reminds you of someone you know in real life, the needs of a good story will be in direct conflict with a completely passive character. So your characters must do something. And their reason for acting must have clear and believable motivation.
One of Newton’s Laws is that an object at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. Humans can be a bit that way as well. There are lots of times we’ll laze around unless something motivates us and forces us into action.
This is particularly true when the needed action involves overcoming obstacles (which can be challenging and scary and painful, all things we tend to resist). The motivation you provide for your character must be sufficiently strong for readers to believe it would keep this person on this path of action.
We’ve often seen horror movies where the characters are just too stupid to live.
They go into the incredibly scary building.
They confront the person who’s obviously an ax murderer.
They spend the night in the haunted house.
For any of these actions to work, we have to believe that the person we’re meeting in the story has sufficient motivation to do the actions in the story.
So what kinds of things motivate us? Let’s look at five common character motivations of value to writers for young readers:
Survival–There isn’t much a person won’t do to survive. When your life is on the line, you’ll take risks, combat scary things, and generally take action in ways you never would thought you would.
Survival can be a motivator for good, courageous things, but it can also make a person take crazy risks or act against the best interests of others. Few books for elementary readers will have survival as a motivation, but thrillers and adventure novels for teens often use survival as a motivator for extreme behavior.
Peer Pressure–Kids and teens do all kinds of things to win the approval of other kids or to win the approval of the authority figures in their lives. The need to remain in the good graces of one’s social group (or get into the good graces of a group you want to be part of) can motivate extreme behavior just as much as the motivation of survival.
The motivation of peer pressure can produce negative behavior (examples would include stealing or cheering on a bully to be part of a group that indulges in negative behavior) or it can motivate positive behavior (examples would include volunteering in order to spend time with friends or a love interest, or behaving bravely to impress someone).
Peer pressure is such a strong motivator that it has become almost a cliché (especially as a motivator of negative behavior) so be careful when you use it and be sure that everyone in the story has a clear, believable motivation for the choices they make. (In other words, if your character is being bad to fit in with bad kids, make sure those kids have strong motivations for their choices as well.)
Curiosity–Young children can get into trouble as their strong sense of curiosity pulls them along. Curiosity can also be the initial motivation in many mysteries or even thrillers. Curiosity might get a character into the haunted house or get the character to step into the empty room to investigate a sound, but curiosity has definite limits. Most characters will not act long against their own well being or against the well being of others if they are motivated solely by curiosity. Curiosity might get the ball rolling, but you’ll have to bring something else in to keep it going. As soon as something genuinely threatening happens, no one will believe in a character who continues along motivated purely by curiosity.
Guilt–Although guilt can motivate characters strongly in the short term, it tends to become unbelievable when it’s the only motivation over the long term. If you feel guilty about playing a prank on your sister, you might loan her your phone, but you’re probably not going to give it to her. Of course, the bigger the thing the character feels guilty about and the stronger it is, the more the motivational value it has. However, one of the problems you can face with guilt is when the action that prompted the guilt happens before the story begins. Then extensive backstory is needed to keep the motivation believable; backstory is difficult to insert smoothly without bogging down plot and pacing.
Fear–Young characters often have limited power, so they can become trapped in situations that hurt them and instill fear. Fear can make a character sick and (much like peer pressure or survival motivations) push the character into negative behaviors with the hope of avoiding pain. Although peer pressure and survival can motivate both positive and negative behaviors, fear in stories almost always motivates only negative behaviors. However, a fearful character who has been shown avoiding scary things might acquire a new motivation as the story progresses (such as making a new friend and feeling a sense of loyalty to the person or having courage demonstrated by another character or feeling guilty about having given into fear in the past). The new motivation may allow a fearful character to overcome one motivation and instead act on another.
So motivations are rarely all one thing. “Bad guys” may be motivated by greed into stealing, but then be motivated by peer pressure or guilt into giving their ill-gotten gains to someone in need. A strong, realistic character will (like any real human being) be a collection of many motivations. And as the author, you’ll need to know them and need to know their intensity so when your character acts, you know exactly what made him do it (and your convenience as the writer can never be the motivation!)
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.