Motivation is the reason a character chases after a goal. If the short form of “goal” is “I want,” then the short form of motivation is “because I need.”
The three most common forms of motivation are:
Desire: I want a brownie. If there’s a plate next to my chair, I’ll have one. If they’re out in the kitchen, I might get up and get one. If I have to bake my own, probably not. The problem with desire as a motivation is that it’s weak: if the only reason you go after something is because you want it, it’s too easy to say when the going gets tough, “Eh, I don’t really want that after all.”
Need: You need your asthma medicine to keep breathing. You need to keep your job so you can buy food and pay rent. You need to stop the bomb before it blows up the hotel, taking you with it. The great thing about need is that your character can’t just change her mind; if she truly needs something, she’s going to have to go after it.
Identity: If the goal your character is chasing is part of the way he or she defines himself or herself as a person, that character will do anything to defend that identity including risking death. If your character subconsciously sees herself as a fixer, she’s not going to be able to walk away from a problem she can solve. If your character subconsciously sees himself as a good father, he’ll lay waste to everything around him to save his child. Identity works hand in glove with Need because people need to protect and define their Identities, even if they’re not aware of them consciously.
Maddie loves her daughter Emily more than life itself, and she will do anything to be a good mother to her.
Maddie finds out her husband is cheating on her, and she hates him, but she won’t confront him or ask for a divorce because it would mean Emily would live in a broken home.
Maddie finds out that her husband is planning on taking Emily and fleeing to South America; she files for divorce and full custody that afternoon.
Maddie’s motivation hasn’t changed, but her actions have because her understanding of the situation changes. Her goal is still protect Emily from harm, and she’s still motivated by her love for her daughter and her need to protect her own identity as a good mother. She’ll die before she relinquishes her daughter’s safety or that identity.
Motivation is the reason your character doesn’t quit when the stakes become life or death.
For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.