Motivation and Identity

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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.”

Motivation

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.

Identity

Example:
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.

TroubleshootingIf your character seems to lose track of her goal, or if you’re having a hard time raising the stakes, chances are it’s a goal based on desire rather than need or identity.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

16 thoughts on “Motivation and Identity

  1. I love this. The identity part. I don’t know why, but I forgot about that aspect of it. And that’s the part that’s always missing in my softer plot stories. Sure, she needs X. It means a lot to her. But it’s hard to come up with why she would DIE if she doesn’t get it. But when it’s part of her identity, you immediately see exactly why. This is why I love the way you teach, because you make it all so clear. You just nail it.

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  2. Mermaid Sribbler says:

    Great post! I just finished rereading parts of GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, and this ties in beautifully. Thank you! What if your character is confused about her identity? Is the search for her true self such an internal conflict that it needs an external conflict to give the story excitement/meaningful stakes? I know movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight do this, but is an identity crisis alone enough of a motivation for readers, or should there be another motivation if identity is in question?

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  3. Mermaid Sribbler says:

    I should clarify: “Is an identity crisis alone enough of a motivation for readers” meaning, is an identity crisis such weak motivation that the goals and stakes of the character won’t resonate with the reader?

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    • It goes back to internal and external conflict. An identity crisis is internal, but it can manifest itself as an external goal, lead a character into a conflict over an external goal, etc.

      The thing about identity is that it’s often unconscious. That is, a character may decide that she’s a great mother, but her subconscious identity is that of a Controller. Victims of abuse sometimes take that as their identity; they’ll walk away from loving relationships not because they consciously feel they’re not worthy but because the new relationships don’t feel right for who they know are. So identity is often not a conscious decision, it’s something inborn and then developed through the kind of nurture we get throughout life. There’s good research, for example, that argues that fearfullness is inborn. A fearful child born to parents who encourage him or her to be brave becomes less fearful, a brave child born to parents who are fearful and who instill those fears in him or her becomes less brave, but they never absolutely go to the other end of the spectrum.
      So think “unconscious identity born of nature and nurture.” If that helps.
      And then there are the identities we assign ourselves, they’re just not usually live-or-die identities.

      ETA: And I just went back to read the post and added the “subconsciously” stuff because that should have been in there. Thank you very much for the fix.

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      • Can you expound on the sentence above that begins “Victims of abuse sometimes take that [Controller] as their identity..” Are you saying that they walk away from the new relationships because…they don’t feel right because of the unconscious identity [as a Controller]? When you create characters, are you thinking of these layers (conscious and unconscious) to give them nuance and/or depth?

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      • Taking it out of the hot button topic of abuse for the moment . . .
        Once a person has internalized an identity, that identity becomes his or her understanding of the way the world works. It’s not something the person can necessarily articulate, but it shapes that person’s actions.
        My favorite example of this is Groucho Marx’s line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member. There are people who are so convinced that they are unlovable that anyone who offers love is seen as unworthy because there must be something wrong with them. There are people who so believe they’re doomed to failure that they sabotage their own lives. And there are people who believe they are destined for great things and keep going in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Identity trumps reality every time.
        However, that’s really deep characterization, and sometimes it’s hard for readers to grasp. When I was in grad school, somebody workshopped a story about a woman who’d left an abusive, controlling boyfriend and met a really nice guy who she kept testing with impossible demands and who bent over backward to treat her well and give her the freedom to make her own choices. In the end, she left the nice guy and went back to the controlling boyfriend, and most of the people in the class were confused because there was nothing in the story that said she wanted to be abused. If you looked at the subtext, she didn’t want to be abused, that’s why she left the original guy, but she clearly wanted to be controlled; the more freedom the nice guy gave her, the more she panicked, and in the end she went back to the guy who’d make the decisions for her even though he’d probably hit her, too. Freedom was more terrifying for her than abuse. It’s a fascinating dynamic, but the story failed because very smart readers couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. The author was right in not explaining it on the page, but trying to get that psychology across without explaining it was almost impossible.
        So when I create characters, I first just write them to find out what the hell they’re doing. Then I look at why they’re doing it. A character I’m writing now is Liz, only child of a single alcoholic mother, who left home at seventeen and is just returning now at thirty. Her mother is no longer drinking, all the stresses of that childhood are gone, but Liz’s identity is still that of the child whose father left at four and who had to take care of a disintegrating mother. That means she’s a Fixer. if there’s a problem, Liz is going to fix it, even if she swears she’s not going to, even if she hates the idea, she will be driven to fix whatever problem is around because that’s what she takes her identity from. It’s not a problem, she’s not tortured by a wound from the past, but the events of her past have formed her identity, and even though she now knows (through lots of therapy) that she tries to fix things because she couldn’t when she was a child, even though she repeatedly refuses to fall back into that role, every damn time push comes to shove, Liz has to fix things. It’s too painful not to.
        I absolutely did not start with “Liz is a fixer,” but as I wrote the first part of the book, she went there over and over again, and I finally had to look at what I was writing to understand why the story wouldn’t go the places I wanted it to.

        TLDR: Don’t use identity to build a character. Write the character and then analyze it to see the identity underneath that fuels the choices and actions the character makes.

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  4. Great post. I knew about ‘want’ and ‘need’ but I never thought about identity as a motivation. You make it so clear, all the concepts I often struggled with in my stories. This post is extremely helpful. Thank you.

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  5. Thanks for expounding on identity and for illustrating it with details from the workshopped story you encountered in graduate school. Always loved the Groucho Marx quote!

    I once heard a guy characterize his parents by saying, “He needed to yell at somebody, and she needed to be yelled at.” Probing further, the father seemed to be a frustrated, angry idealist, and the mother a martyr who considered herself unloveable. What a match! Yet they remained together until death.

    This character-creating stuff is deep! But I have to say, this depth is not present in all the novels I read, and I think they are the worse for that.

    Thanks!

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  6. betsyh says:

    Why do I feel like I’m in therapy when I’m delving into motivation? Going deeper into my book’s character is taking me into dark corners of myself, and I want to write a comedy! Thank you for your posts on writing–you are very generous to share your knowledge!

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