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.
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