The One Trick That Cracks Character Motivation & Change
I used to struggle with character motivation and new clients often come to me with the same issue.
In my experience, unclear—or the complete lack of—character motivation stems from two things:
Shoehorning characters into plots.
Building stories around underdeveloped characters.
The Problem With Character Sheets
When I ask clients to send me over their characters sheets, many outlines start with height, hair colour, eye colour, etc., and that's all good. Some describe internal and external conflict, which is also great.
But what most of them are missing is one crucial question: Why?
I use Scrivener to write all my books and its inbuilt character sheet template reads like this:
Role in Story:
The juicy stuff doesn't come until we get to the conflict, but what the conflicts section doesn't prompt you to think about is why. That might seem easy enough, and it is to an extent, but it doesn't dig into why.
As an example, here's a transcript of an actual conversation I had with a client about a romance character who doesn't believe in love.
Me: "Why don't they believe in love?"
Client: "Their parents divorced went they were eight."
Me: "And what else?"
Client: "Well—uh—they divorced, and it was traumatic, and now they don't believe in love."
Me: "And what else?"
Me: "Anything else?"
Me: "Okay, so do they know anyone who's happily married?"
Client: "Yeah, but..."
See the problem? One experience rarely forms a belief. (I'm leaving out being the victim, or witness of, serious crime. That can have lasting effects.)
The Results Pyramid
Ever heard of the Results Pyramid? Here's how it looks:
There's a reverse hierarchy of these layers: Experiences form beliefs, beliefs form actions, and actions form results. The key here is experiences. It's plural. One experience might trigger the journey to a belief, but it's experiences that lead to an almost unshakeable belief.
Here's how I cracked motivation for a character who wasn't "behaving". I wrote one scene that triggered the beginning of the character's beliefs, then another two that reinforced those beliefs. The exercise not only cemented the character's beliefs but justified how they'd act in certain situations and the results.
PRO TIP: Remember, you can use results to reinforce your character's beliefs, aka "the self-fulfilling prophecy".
Even better, this exercise generates backstory you can pepper throughout the book, new scene ideas, and opportunities to overcome those beliefs for satisfying character change.
Those three scenes—that will probably never make your final book—can change everything.
The Secret of Character Change
What makes a character's belief system change? Unexpected results.
In your book, changing a character's beliefs requires time and effort, but the process is simple—keep challenging your character's beliefs and they'll change.
So, guess what? We need to write one scene that triggers reconsideration of your character's belief system, then...? That's right, go write some more! Ideally, these scenes will make your final book because you need them.
Take a character whose motivation you've been struggling with and write the scenes that trigger and cement their belief system, justifying the actions they take and the results.
Write at least one scene that triggers a challenge to the character's established belief system. Remember, the best way to do this is for the character to experience an unexpected result from the one they expected.
These exercises work just as well for characters you're inserting into pre-defined plots.
Let me know in the comments how you get on with this exercise, okay? I want to see what you unlock! If it's useful to you, share this post with a fellow writer who's struggling with character motivation and change.