Character and Conflict Part2: Motivation

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Having read - a lot - a definite way for me to want to throw a book at the wall is when the narrative either loses sight of the conflict or an author struggles to develop one. As a reader, a lack of or an unclear conflict can feel like sitting in a staff meeting without a purpose. Whether you’re a writer who wants to write a more cohesive story, or a reader who’s developing their critique technique, one thing to look for in respect to believable and developed conflict is the main character’s motivation.

Characters - if developed as a round, dynamic, fleshed out character - are motivated to act. Their movements don’t just spontaneously combust into forward movement for the sake of moving plot. If they do, there is a problem with author insertion and adding to a reader’s awareness of a plot feeling contrived. If you aren’t sure why a character makes a choice in the action or dialogue, or feel confused by it, chances are the character’s motivation isn’t clearly defined or the author is intruding.

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

Motivation for a character, just like in our own lives outside of the pages, can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the internal means of propelling a character based on internal desires. Harry Potter, for example, in The Sorcerer and the Stone (J.K. Rowling) was motivated to understand who he was outside the Dursleys. He wanted to know more about his past which propelled him on a journey toward personal enlightenment. Intrinsic motivation. Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien), however, was motivated to get the one ring out of the Shire in order to keep his home safe from an external danger. Extrinsic motivation. While the stories begin with a specific sort of motivation - internal or external - this doesn’t mean the motivation won’t change. We see both Harry and Frodo undergo changes along the journey to change what motivates their choices, just as that occurs in our own lives.

I took a wonderful class many years ago that helped me as a creative writer. The class was called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. Character motivation was one idea which really stuck with me. A simple tool Mr. Watt presented which I have used over and over in my own writing is the following sentence:


If (Main Character) can (fill in the blank) then s/he can (fill in the blank).

Here’s an example from Star Wars: A New Hope:


If Luke Skywalker can get off Tatooine then he can be happy.


This is Luke’s reality in the opening of the movie. A clear motivation which propels his curiosity. The longer we follow his journey, however, his initial motivation shifts as the he moves forward in the hero’s journey. When his family is murdered, his motivation shifts. This is a mirror to reality; our motivation is constantly shifting based on attained goals, redefined wants, and personal desires.

So to mirror Luke’s shift in motivation:

If Luke Skywalker can help the rebellion he can avenge his family’s death.

It is important to follow the motivation to the root, however. As the above example shows there are still questions: Why does Luke want to avenge his family?

If Luke can avenge his family then he can clear his conscious for leaving them.

A round and dynamic character’s motivation will always modify and shift as the journey shapes her; that is what makes her more relatable to readers. These changes in motivation whether intrinsic or extrinsic are often rooted in the journey (which if you aren’t familiar with Chris Vogler’s work on the Joseph Campbell monomyth be sure to look it up). As the story moves forward, the motivation serves as a guide for interaction with other characters, propels the main character’s choices, and determines forward action which is believable rather than contrived.

Think about your favorite novel or your current work in progress. Can you create an If/can, then/can statement?

Up Next: Pacing your story . . .





Hero's Journey: Jane and New Found Freedom

At the close of any story, the hero crosses from her the unknown world where she has ultimately faced personal change and triumph and returns to her ordinary world changed. This part of Campbell’s “monomyth” is the act of Restoring Order and The Freedom to Live (without fear).

The Order: returning to what is known and secure.

The Freedom: to not be afraid to face new experiences.

After the jet lag had passed, and I finally felt normal, the return to my ordinary world was made with fresh eyes. It was a gift to hug my babies (human and furry), to sleep in my own bed, to flop on the couch and watch TV.  Oh, it was so good to be back to my safe, secure, ordinary world, but I wouldn’t trade that adventure for anything.

Hero's Journey: Jane and the Final Battle

The gratitude and blessing I received by leaving my ordinary world behind to travel ultimately shaped my perspective. Ordinary Jane looked the same, but her edges had been sanded and rounded into new understanding. As the trip drew to a close, my husband and I now looked at the long trip home from Rome to Hawaii.

Outside of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Outside of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

In Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien, Aragon, having vanquished Gondor, gathers the troops to go to the black gate and make a final stand against Sauron to support Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring. Meanwhile, Frodo faces Gollum for ultimate control over the ring but we know he is really facing the destruction of himself. In any hero’s journey, this final trial is the ultimate test that determines not only the hero’s worthiness, but also provides the opportunity to use her new found perspective. Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” identified this as The Final Battle. Harry Potter does this in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, when he must face Voldemort with the Elder Wand. These final battles determine the outcome of good versus evil with our heroes at the center of the struggle. In all of the cases, each hero has her new found knowledge to support the conflict.

While The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter are fantasy stories filled with magic and monsters, the everyday, ordinary hero might confront a conversation with a significant other, or a parent, maybe standing up for themselves at work, or reaching an achievement. The Final Battle may not be a grandiose conquering of an evil being, but just coming full circle changed.

My final battle:

The beginning of our flight from Italy to Frankfurt.  The journey home to Hawaii took us over twenty hours.

The beginning of our flight from Italy to Frankfurt.  The journey home to Hawaii took us over twenty hours.

My husband and I boarded our first flight. Easy Peasy. On the second flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, I sat next to a young man headed home to the United States. While a nice human, each time he stood up, I was gifted with the strongest stench of poo. I fortified my nose by burying it into the arm of my husband on the other side of me. Twelve hours later, barely making it through customs because my dark-skinned husband needed additional screening into the country, running at least a mile and a half to our gate and a narrowly missed flight home, we made it to our gate.

We settled into the seats for our final leg home. An elderly gentleman sitting next to me - struggling to communicate with the flight attendant due to a language barrier - pulls out a massive stalk of dried squid (ike) at least 12-16 inches long and begins to gnaw on it. The strong aroma of dried squid (if you aren’t sure, it’s probably easy to imagine) turned my stomach. As the man chewed that jerky like squid from one to the other without hands, I spend most of the next six hour flight with my nose against my husband’s other arm. Good stories and ones we love to laugh about now.

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

This final task, the twenty-plus hours of travel to make it from one side of the globe to another, When we landed in Hawaii, it had never felt better to return home.