Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: MOTIVATION


By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last time we talked about goal in the triad of goal, motivation, and conflict. This week, we’re going to take the next step by talking about motivation.

Motivation is one of the most powerful forces in fiction. Our readers will follow our characters through anything as long as they believe the motivation.

Motivation is the why. Why does your character desperately want to achieve their goal?

This ties tightly into why the goal is important. It’s what’s at stake. What do they stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal? That’s going to be part of what motivates them to reach it.

What’s easy to forget about motivation is that it comes on two levels—the external, conscious level and the internal, subconscious level. The best stories will have both and they’ll work together.

The external, conscious level is the obvious why.

The internal, subconscious level is the underlying need that your character probably isn’t even aware that they’re trying to fill.

I’ll give you a really simplistic example just to make the difference clear.

The character wants to get a raise at his job (his goal) so that he can buy a bigger house (his external motivation) because he believes that will earn him respect from his family (his subconscious need).

That one’s pretty obvious, but the connection doesn’t have to be blatant as long as the dual motivations work together.

An example that I really like is from the movie White House Down. The main character is ex-military, and he’s in the White House on a tour with his daughter when terrorists attack. The main character’s external goal is to save his daughter and the president from the terrorists who’ve taken over the White House. His external motivation is that if he doesn’t save his daughter, she’ll likely die, and if he doesn’t save the president, the terrorists will be able to launch nuclear weapons and start a world war.

His internal motivation is that he desperately needs his daughter to be proud of him and to prove to her that she can count on him.

Another way to look at this is that the external motivation is our plot and the internal motivation is our character arc. That internal need is the true driving force of the plot, and what our character experiences on the outside forces them along their internal arc and forces them to grow. We are all driven by our internal needs, whether we’re aware of them or not. 

Here’s why understanding the difference between external motivation and internal, subconscious motivation (the need) is so cool.

Your character might fail at their original external goal, but as long as that failure still meets their internal need or motivation, you’re going to have created a satisfying story.

Next time we’ll talk about how conflict interacts with goal and motivation! (If you missed last week’s post about the goal, you can find it here.)

Do you have any other tips about character motivation that you’d like to share?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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