More Character Motivations

Oops, got so involved with what is going on in my life that I missed a week. I’ll try to make it up sometime in the future, but for now I’m just going to continue on with my plan writing about Character Building.

Last Time I wrote about the primary motivation most characters should have: staying alive. I believe it is very important to be aware that most characters in a story will want to focus on keeping themselves alive, and what it means when that isn’t the case, however while that provides a solid base it isn’t terribly informative. Realistically, it won’t come up that often, and even if it did anything that is common to 99.9% of the population isn’t terribly interesting.

Secondary motivations are where things begin to get more interesting. Here it becomes possible to look at a character and start to infer things about who they are, and how they will behave in a given situation. Also, the importance a character gives to each of these goals tells the reader something about your character. Their character development is ultimately driven by things which cause them to reorder their priorities, or by how achieving or failing to meet their goals causes them to reevaluate themselves and what they are doing.

One thing to keep in mind is that characters may not be aware of all their secondary motivations, and they may also incorrectly define which ones are most important to them. For example, a businessman may tell you his goals involve moving up in the company hierarchy, but what he actually cares about most is providing for his family. Culturally, his caring for his family is simply assumed. Alternately, an athlete may say that winning the big championship game is the only thing he cares about, but when presented with the opportunity to win by cheating he may turn his nose up at it. He discovers that while he wants to win, he isn’t willing to do so unfairly.

Protagonist Goals

Protagonist goals tend to be different from those of the characters around them. Most characters in a story will have primarily mundane goals, or if they have fantastic goals will give them a low priority (due to their impossibility). Obviously this doesn’t have to be true of all secondary characters and minor characters, a minor or secondary character that is trying to accomplish something seemingly impossible could be someone to help give the protagonist a boost when they need it most, but in general most people keep their main goals down to earth.

Protagonists, however, like to reach. They don’t want to get that next promotion, but rather intend to eventually become the company president. When that village child said that he wanted to become a knight, he really meant it. And that little boy wants a puppy more than anything else in the world.

One thing to remember is that the goal doesn’t have to necessarily seem that impressive. Where The Red Fern Grows is set in motion by a boy and his dream of owning two coon hunting dogs.This may sound like a minor thing, but the key here is that the goal was so vitally important to the character, and his situation called into question his ability to achieve it. This was something he needed to seriously work at to accomplish.

Antagonist Goals

Antagonist goals can be vastly more varied, often depending on the type of story you intend to tell and the type of antagonist that best suits your story. If you want an antagonist that mirrors the protagonist, it may be good to give them a lofty goal as well (often one that conflicts with that of the main characters). In this case, giving the goal twist to make the antagonist unlikable is a common too. For example, perhaps both characters want to win the championship, but the antagonist wants to do it to become rich and famous while the protagonist wants to do it because they love the game and feel this need to prove they are the best.

A conflict with the antagonist’s goals is almost always a given, but that doesn’t mean they have to be inherently malicious. Perhaps a kid has trouble getting support of his father because he wants to go to college, but his father believes that is a waste of time and money for someone who is destined to take over the family farm. Or, on the other side of the coin, perhaps there is a child whose mother is pushing them to enroll in an ivy league college despite their love for animals and desire to become a veterinarian.

The most important thing is to know why the conflict exists. Taking the example of the mother trying to push her kids to get an ivy league education as an example, it is entirely possible she sees how smart her children are and wants to make sure they get the best future possible. Maybe she got pregnant early in life and felt that she had to give up such opportunities for herself to take care of her children, and thus wants to make sure her kids get the life she never had. Ultimately what she wants is for her children to grow up to lead happy, fulfilling lives, however she defines that in a particular way which isn’t necessarily what everyone wants. Knowing this lets you better understand the clashes that happen, driving the story forward in a way that is consistent while suggesting potential outcomes.