Goals and Motivations in Fiction Writing

When we talk about a character’s “motivation,” exactly what do we mean by that?

Diane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I just recently found your blog love it. I am really hoping the snowflake method will work for me, because I struggle with planning — and, therefore, finishing — my novels. My difficulty right now is step 3, the one-page character sheet with motivation, goal, etc. I don’t really understand the difference between the motivation and the goal: they make sense in my head, but when I write them out, they seem to be almost the same thing. And I assume the one page is one typed page, or about 500 words. Does the motivation, goal, etc., discuss the motivation through each Act (in the three act structure) of the character’s personal timeline?

Randy sez: Different people mean different things by the word “motivation.” It’s an amorphous concept and I prefer to break it down into several parts which I can clearly define:

  • Values. The beliefs a character has which he considers “self-evident.”
  • Ambition. The abstract thing that the character wants to get or achieve or become.
  • Goal. The concrete thing that the character wants to get or achieve or become.

To figure out a character’s values, interview him (in your mind) and ask him to fill in the blank in as many ways as he can in this sentence: “Nothing is more important than _________.”

Typically, most people can give you two or three things that they think should go in the blank. If they have 20 things, then something is wrong, because some of them are going to be more important than others. But most people have two or three that they would judge to be equally important. A strong story comes from putting those in conflict.

For example, in THE GODFATHER, Vito Corleone would say instantly that “Nothing is more important than respect.” Vito is a man of respect. That’s how he lives.

But after half a second of thought, Vito would add, “But nothing is more important than family.”

Now what happens when Vito’s oldest son shows him disrespect? Not intentionally. Without thinking about it. In front of one of Vito’s competitors. Now Vito has a problem, and this is what drives the novel.

So much for values. What about ambition? What do we mean when we say that ambition is “abstract”?

That’s easy. What does every Miss America contestant say that she wants? Everybody knows the answer to this question. They all want “world peace.” Whatever that is.

The problem is that “world peace” is abstract. You can’t hold it in your hand. How do you get it? What does it look like?

World peace is a fine ambition, but it’s abstract, and an abstraction is not enough to drive a story.

In order to fully define the motivation for Miss America (or anyone else), you need to know what they want concretely. If Miss America says, “We’ll have world peace when all nuclear weapons are abolished,” now we know what her concrete goal is. You know exactly what it looks like to eliminate all nuclear weapons. You’ll know when you achieve that goal, because there won’t be any more nukes on the planet.

Somebody else might say, “No, that’s not it. We’ll have world peace when every person on the planet who wants a job has one.” Once again, that’s concrete. You’ll know when you achieve that goal.

Obviously, it’s possible that even if you achieved either one of those goals, you still wouldn’t have “world peace.” That’s not the point. The point is that the character THINKS that achieving that concrete goal will be the same as achieving the abstract ambition. So the character puts all his energy into reaching that concrete goal.

Your character can have fine values and a noble ambition, but until she has a concrete goal, you don’t have a story. The goal will the concrete realization for some abstract ambition that is built on one or more values.

When you understand your character’s goal, ambition, and values, then you have a very good handle on your character’s motivations. If your character has multiple values that conflict, then you also have an unpredictable character. Actions are dictated by values. When your values are in conflict, it’s anybody’s guess how you’ll act.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

9 Comments

  1. Chihuahua0 March 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Values, ambitions, goals…

    That’s actually an intriguing concept to think about. For example, my narrator’s “ambition” is to figure out how to fix society in his own little way. Since that’s a bit vague, he settles for the exchange student–who happens to be a psychic. Not to mention has the goal of “escaping his father”.

    Hmm…I need to consider the narrator’s values a bit more.

  2. Kristen March 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    One of my writing coaches encourages us to ask “why?” So the first thing I thought of in connection with this matter is that the goal is what the protag wants, and motivation is why she wants it.

  3. JIm Hamlett March 30, 2012 at 3:27 am #

    Well done. If only the execution were as simple as the explanation.

  4. Mo April 5, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    Hahahaha. Good one, Jim. Yes indeed. It all sounds so straight forward, but trying to get it to feel like seamless underlay to the carpet of story involves more staples and glue than I seem to have on hand.

    I had this one short story that involved a dead woman who roamed the forested territory near her hometown, looking for meaning in her half way existence. To her “Nothing is as important as belonging”. She encountered wildlife with whom she could communicate, but not clearly, and so she couldn’t get direct answers to her queries. She attempted to bond with a herd of bison in order to retain a sense of belonging…but as she had begun to rot she was firmly rejected. So, goals and ambitions were there, and concrete efforts to find a way to belong and derive meaning from “life”, but the story was never finished because it goes nowhere. It is circular, never finding a solution or satisfactory conclusion…

    What do you do when you find yourself going in circles like that?

  5. Michael December 4, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Great article. I always find motivation hard to define as it covers a lot of different aspects of character, as you showed.

    Also, I guess reigning one’s scope in helps a lot. I mean, most people all want to be happy, but want they want to make them happy differs from one person to the next.

    Thanks for the great read!

  6. Joseph A. Ewing November 4, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Wow this opens up the world of character creation and takes it to a whole new level for. I especially identified with Randy when he said you’ll have a greater grasp of your character when you understand “your character’s goal, ambition, and values, then you have a very good handle on your character’s motivations.” Thanks a lot Randy. I’m sharing this page with all my friends that are writers.

    • Joseph A. Ewing November 4, 2015 at 10:21 am #

      In addition, it now makes the Conflict much more clear.

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