Greetings Storytellers! We’re off to Part 5 of Crafting Rich Characters, the final installment of this series. In Part 1, we explored a character’s Physical Appearance, Mannerisms, and Quirks. In Part 2, we covered Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, and Occupations and Interests. In Part 3, we looked at the Formative Backstory, Core Values, and The Lie. And in Part 4, we explored Secrets, The Big Fear, and The Mask.
In this post, we’re going to finish up character-building with Motivations and Goals.
And at the end, you’ll be able to download a worksheet with the aspects of character-building I’ve presented in this 5-part series.
Motivation lies at the heart of a compelling character’s profile. Much of what we’ve talked about in previous posts will contribute to an understanding of a character’s internal motivation.
Motivations and Goals are often confused since they’re both related to things characters want, and they both can drive character and plot. So, what’s the difference?
- Motivation is the underlying reason why a person has a goal, such as a fear of abandonment, a desire for security, the need to prove their competency or save the day.
- A goal is something measurable a character wants to achieve. It’s a conscious objective like winning a championship, getting married, clearing his name of a crime, or slaying the demon king.
Character motivation is the reason behind a character’s behaviors and actions. They might relate to external survival needs, or they might relate to psychological needs, such as love, security, or professional success. Ask yourself – what’s the one thing this character deeply desires above all else? Capturing this motivation will increase the believability of the characters’ choices and drive up the stakes in the story.
Characters can share an identical goal — like surviving a night in a haunted house — while having different motivations. Bob wants the prize money. Sally wants to impress Bob. Carl wants to prove it’s all a hoax. And Jack wants to murder everyone for making fun of his weird ears!
Remember, motivations don’t need to be rational. Jack might not be particularly sane, but he’s clearly motivated to save the world by ridding it of people with perfect ears. (Perhaps there is a trait, core value, family history, big lie, secret, fear, or a mask that provides the twisted logic of his motivation — there better be!).
All characters need plausible motivation(s), and that includes villains. Without it, characters may seem like cardboard cutouts. To bring them to life, give them real, understandable reasons for doing what they do.
And to make things even more interesting, motivations within a single character can conflict. Benjamin wants to survive the plane crash in the wilderness, but that means he’ll need to steal food from his companions, which is in direct conflict with his need to be the hero who saves the day. Ah, the turmoil!
Strong goals – kill the vampire king, arrest the spy, marry the billionaire – are backed up by strong motivations. The combination will prevent characters from wandering off on irrelevant tangents and slowing down your pace. If a character’s desperate goal is to escape the burning museum, she’s not going to stop to photograph the artwork or have a long luxurious kiss with the firefighter (like they do on television).
A protagonist’s overarching goal will drive the plot, but consider that the main characters will also have goals related to subplots. Rebecca wants the promotion at work, and she also wants to reconnect with her estranged father. The character’s thoughts, actions, and choices focus on what they want and how they’re going to get it. Motivation keeps the stakes sky-high.
We all know that for every goal, our characters need a handful of obstacles. What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal? This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Or all three! Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small, and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.
Some questions for exploring character motivations and goals:
- What does your character desperately desire?
- Why does the goal matter?
- If the character failed, how would they react?
- How far would the character go to avoid failing?
- What would this character sacrifice to achieve the goal?
A final note on character goals: at some point in the story, the main character(s) must move into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. If they don’t, they’ll lack agency and seem passive. Powerlessness is fine at the beginning of the story, but something must change to light a fire under the character’s feet. What changes to catapult the character into action?
Character Profile Prompts
Five parts to this series! You might be wondering when you’re going to start writing your book if you need to pen a biography for each character first. I certainly don’t write a complete bio for every person in my stories, but I write something for the vast majority of them, even if it’s only a wart on the grocer’s nose.
Naturally, the main protagonists get a great deal of pre-work. I encourage writers to go through this process for their villains too, which will make those important characters memorable, as well as prevent them from being two-dimensional.
Even secondary characters are worth a smattering of attention. It will keep them from being bland bodies that the protagonists and villains merely bounce off of. The beautiful office manager has garlic breath. The side-kick has a sick kid and his family is falling apart. The computer geek is overly helpful because she has a secret crush on her boss. Giving secondary characters lives beyond their plot-roles in the story will make them more interesting.
Trust me that this series of posts took more time to read than it will take to jot down the very short answers to some prompts. A character bio shouldn’t take more than a page or two. It’s up to you how many questions you answer and whether you write a word or two, or a paragraph. Some aspects of your character’s profile will resonate, explore those.
On a final note, not everything from your character bio will end up in the text, and it shouldn’t! You need to get to the story. But, in my opinion, the reader can “feel” the richness of the character because you know the person inside and out.
Most importantly, when your prework is done and you begin to write, let your characters flow and change as they tell their stories. A character profile isn’t chiseled in stone, and your characters will tell you where you got it wrong. That’s part of the fun of writing “real” people. Trust their voices and enjoy .
Attached is a downloadable worksheet that you can use as a guide to whatever degree you wish.
There you have it. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing your character profiling tricks.