Easy methods to revolutionize your character motivation

Whether I screwed up at work or reacted badly at home (hypothetically of course), I often need a fresh start. Why? Because I am human and have a tendency to get into trouble. Sometimes my ruts are based on bad habits or wrong beliefs. Speaking of habits and beliefs, these are also the sources of character motivation in my stories.

It's not great for me as a person, but it's great for fiction. The first step towards a new beginning for me or my characters? Find out our default settings.

I recently received the development notes for a novel I wrote last summer. One of the biggest problems concerns the main character. I have comments in the manuscript like "I'm not sure what motivates you here" and "Why did she react this way?"

In some cases I know why, but in other places? Not sure what motivates my character other than having to move them from point A to B.

How the past informs the present


Everyone uses past experiences to interpret and inform the present, including our characters.

I'm not a writer who likes to fill out long, drawn-out character sketches or questionnaires (short or long). I don't let my students complete them because while knowing the character and the world is important, most students struggle to separate the character sketch from the story. It is painful for a reader or writer to flip through six (or sixty!) Pages to see that the story actually begins on page seven (or sixty-one!).

My writers often have a hard time cutting those first six pages and bringing the backstory into the plot in a more natural way.

The key: find the crucial moments

Instead of a long character analysis, I identify or create the crucial moments in a character's life and discover the memories that character falls back on in a crisis.

For example, if my character has been betrayed by a close friend, she may be reluctant to make new people. If my character's family had a terrible house fire, it might be irrational about fire or smoke. (Yes, these are clich├ęs and maybe a bit obvious, but you got the idea.)

When writing a new character, try to create the character at the point where it makes a fresh start.

Think about why he needs a fresh start – what rut is he in? Bet you can make a great list of ruts: driving too aggressively, bitterness, resentment, explosive anger, dysfunctional relationships, irrational fear, and so on.

Ask a couple of questions:

  • When did this character first get into this rut? What was going on then?
  • Who were the role models of character during this time (positive or negative)?
  • What is the point of the character in continuing the pattern? (Oh yes, they have some of it.)

Remember, your answers to these questions are not the story. You are the engine that propels your character forward under pressure. As a bonus, that bad habit or wrong belief is likely to keep him from doing what he wants too.

Where to set defining moments

When we start writing fiction, we usually throw away the backstory at the beginning because it looks like the reader needs to know. The result? It confuses the reader and tarnishes our central conflict.


Readers want our characters to be in action, pursuing a goal, and facing conflict.

Where should we introduce those crucial moments that motivate our characters? In real life and in great stories, they pop up right when we don't want them to – in the heat of the moment, when we're hurt or angry or lost.

Defining moments can be referenced by another character ("You looked just like mom when you yelled at him") or in the character's mind (He reminded me of the summer in Sicily when I lost …). Memories reappear in sensory experiences such as smells or sounds.

Let the ringing of a wind chime annoy you or the smell of honeysuckle provoke a physical reaction. Ground those moments in the action.

How to revise character motivation

What if you rework a character like me? I start with the scenes where she reacts to conflict in strong or unusual ways to identify the patterns of behavior.

In my novel there is the provocative incident in a hotel restaurant in which the main character is kissed by a stranger in front of a table with her husband's work partners. She hits him in response.

Some characters would laugh at it. Others would push him away. What makes you hit him?

That is what I have to identify and make consistent through the design. Whenever possible, I want the memory to relate to my topic for maximum impact.

When we interview our characters to find their motivation, our stories become stronger reflections of the human experience. Motivation creates resonance with readers.

What motivates your characters? Do you need a fresh start? Which moments and memories define them? Let us know in the comments.


Pick a character from your work in progress or create a new character based on someone you know with a bad habit or wrong belief. For fifteen minutes, unpack the crucial moment that contributed to the habit or belief. It could be a scene from his past or a summary. Share your practice in the comments and encourage one another.

Sue Weems

Sue WeemsSue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. If she doesn't rationalize her love of parentheses (and dramatic aside), she's following a sailor around the world with her four children, two dogs, and an incredibly tall pile of books to read. You can read more of their writing tips on their website.