Characters – Part 3: Motivation and Psychology.

One of the biggest driving forces a character needs is motivation.  Why are they taking the course they are?  If there’s an antagonist, what is their motivation?  In the simplest terms, in a battle of good versus evil (think James Bond), simply being evil for the sake of being evil isn’t enough.  There has to be some goal, some justifiable end game.

The same goes for your protagonist.  If they’re the hero of some pop fiction thriller, why are they the hero?  Is it because circumstances corner them into taking action?  Or are they simply performing their duty?  Of course, it might run deeper than that.  Perhaps they share a history with the antagonist.  Or perhaps they have a certain talent which is required for the undertaking.

A basic example would be Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.  He is chosen to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest, promoted by Gandalf as ‘a thief’, and also to ensure the party isn’t an unlucky thirteen in number.  This would seem frivolous.  But in other stories, Tolkien explained that Gandalf specifically chose a hobbit because he knew the hobbit scent would confuse the dragon, Smaug – so this is something specific to Bilbo (in the company).  Midway through The Hobbit, he finds a magical ring that makes him invisible, which often puts him in the best position for all the risky tasks during the quest.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is chosen to bear the One Ring to the Cracks of Doom, although there would seem hardier candidates.  He volunteers because he feels the One Ring has become his burden.  Of course, he also wants to save Middle-earth (and, by extension, the Shire) from the growing threat of Sauron.

Of course, not all stories are so straightforward, i.e. they don’t contain a goal, or are as simple as stopping the bad guy.  Many stories are about intellectual, emotional, and/or spiritual growth.

Consider The Catcher In the Rye.  Holden Caufield bugs out from school early to get home.  It seems a whimsical motive.  But on the journey Holden works himself out.  The journey is really just an allegory for Holden to find himself and to, finally, become comfortable in his own skin after a troubled life, and one which hasn’t made much sense to him since the death of his brother Allie.

Now not only should characters be motivated in their actions, but some thought should be given to the psychology of their behaviour.  Many writers would impulsively attribute behaviours to a character because it seems convenient at the time of writing, e.g., ‘Bob clenched his fist angrily.’

That’s a simple example, but let’s consider, is Bob really a fist clencher?  Why is he a fist clencher?  Does he do it in an attempt to contain the anger or because he’s ready to strike?  Is he aware he does this?  Are there any other physical manifestations of his anger?  How long does it take him to get angry?  Does he have a slow fuse or does he blow immediately?  How long does he take to unwind afterwards?

We all have quirks.  These might manifest physically, but they would also have some root psychological cause.  It’s too easy to randomly attribute behaviours to a character without thinking about why they happen – why they are the way they are.  The genesis of any behaviours might be a result of upbringing or could be accredited to a single incident.

For example, a boy who falls in a pool and almost drowns might grow up to fear water.  Here we have a breakdown of a physical manifestation with a psychological cause due to a specific incident.  E.g.

  • physical manifestation: might experience rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath when nearing water.
  • psychological cause: fear of water.
  • root cause: almost drowning as a child.

Of course, not every (or even any) character has to be so dramatic.  But even an everyman – somebody happy with a nine-to-five job, who wants to live in suburbia, have the partner, the kids, the dog, et al – might be driven by a need for conformity (programmed into them from childhood), or the desire to have a family.  Or they might not realise this, as they’re just going along with what they’ve always known and been brought up to believe in, never questioning.

Motivation and psychology – it’s worth putting a little thought into what drives your characters.