Motivation: What It Is, and Why It’s So Freaking Hard to Write

It’s the thing that holds a book together or causes it to fall apart. It’s the thing that writers will tell you is the essential piece to making your characters realistic. In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest things in the world to get right.

It’s motivation.

“Excuse me, excuse me. What’s MY motivation?” The characters in your books (not unlike those high-maintenance diva-like actors) need motivation in order to be true and convincing. We need to know what’s causing them to be happy, or seek revenge, or act petty, or have sex.

Some motivations are simple: I am hungry, therefore, I will eat my supper.

Some motivations are not simple, and those are the ones with which I am most concerned. Let me give you an example from real life.

Joanna and Sonja, twins of lore

I have a twin sister. People always ask me, “What is it like to have a twin?” and I always answer back, “That’s a hard question, because I don’t know what it’s like NOT to have a twin.” But I can tell you that twins growing up together are tied in a way that we probably don’t even understand ourselves.

My family moved from one end of the country to the other the summer before my sister and I started high school. What got me through most days was knowing that even if no one else in that entire giant school building knew or cared who I was, at least one person did, and was going through the exact same thing as me. We were facing this together, and because we were together, we were going to get through it.

My senior year of high school, though, we started fighting. Looking back, I will say that most of the blame was on me for that. I picked fights over stupid stuff. I was deliberately argumentative. I got annoyed over the slightest things. But at the time, I just thought that my sister had suddenly become obnoxious. I was actually glad that we were going our separate ways, to different schools for college, even though it was the first time we’d both go into a completely new situation without each other.

My freshman year of college was one of the hardest years of my life, and I must have had some inkling that it would be tough before I got there. I didn’t put it together until just a few weeks ago, though, that those fights my senior year of high school with my sister (who never really did anything that should have upset me that much) were a defense mechanism. Fighting with her was a way of distancing myself so that facing college without her wouldn’t seem so awful. (Yeah, sorry about that, sis.)

But, people, it took me 10 years to realize that. If motivations in real life are so complicated, how the heck are we supposed to get them into a 75,000-word book?

It’s not easy, and I continue to struggle with it. The good news is that as I learn more about relationships and people and the world, I also become a better writer, and that will never stop.

  • Lisa

    Good post. 🙂

  • Lisa

    BTW, a divorce lawyer once told me that men are only motivated by two things: money and sex.

  • Haha! I'd add food to that list, maybe. Or beer.

  • I think as a writer GMC is one acronym I never want to hear again or see written on a critique. I can deal with PoV or Show don't Tell but so far GMC is this big mountain I have no idea how to climb.

    I don't know what my characters goals are or what motivates them. And while I can do external conflict, I still have a big problem with internal conflict. Like knowing what it is for my characters. Really, I just want to tell a nice story in this made up world and get on with life. Why do I need this stuff? (Yes, I know why…so our readers can connect with the characters….doesn't mean I like it.)

    Umm, okay…still upset over trashing a story because the motivation sucked. I just have to remember when I rewrite the story it should be better if I get the motivation right.

  • Skylar

    I didn't know you were a twin! Me too! I so understand the comments about twins, and it was always consolation that I had someone to pal around with…since we didn't fit into any cliques.

    As for motivation, you can have multiple layers of it, but overall you have to have enough to sustain the length of the book. Sure it can have twists and turns like a plot, but at the characters core there has to be something that sustains your hero or heroine that can't be extinguished until the very end. Almost like a goal that needs to be met, but on a deeper level. :0)

  • Just catching up on blogs on my snow day. 🙂 My freshman year sucked majorly too. I didn't remember that about high school, so no worries I guess!

  • I'm glad I didn't traumatize you too much. 🙂

  • That Sprite commercial is one of my favorite of all time. Topped only by the Snapple commercial where the fruits went to India. Thanks for sharing that 🙂

    oh, and when someone kicks your sister (sorry, Joanna), do you feel it? 🙂