Make Character Heart Beat

Character motivation is the beating heart of a story and propels the narrative forward. It's the driving force behind the actions and decisions of your character, shaping their journey and ultimately determining the course of the plot. Without motivation, your character is a shell, drifting aimlessly through the pages, unable to grab your read or resonate with the human experience.

Classic novels have long served as playgrounds demonstrating human motivation, piecing together intricate stories of love, loss, triumph, and tragedy, anchored by the motivations of their characters. It's their reasons— and the decisions they make based on those reasons—that transform the words on a page into living people whose choices profoundly impact the trajectory of the story and the experiences we as readers have along the way.

Character Motivation and Their Purpose

Motivation is not just the driving force of a plot; it's the intention that gives a character purpose and creates emotional stakes for the reader. Without those stakes, it doesn't matter whether the character lives or dies, achieves their goal or fails. Creating those emotional stakes is a matter of proving the character's motivations matter.

Example 1

The timeless tale of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas at its core is an insatiable quest for revenge that consumes Edmund Dantès. Wrongfully imprisoned and robbed of his freedom, Dantès's unrelenting desire for retribution against those who wronged him becomes the driving force that shapes his every move.

Revenge as Motivation Pros and Cons:


  • Creates a strong, driven character with a clear goal

  • Adds drama, tension, and conflict to the plot

  • Allows for exploration of moral grayness and vigilante justice

  • Provides opportunity for an epic, cathartic payoff


  • Can make the character seem single-minded or obsessive

  • Risks glorifying vengeance over forgiveness

  • Challenging to redeem a vengeance-driven character

  • Story could get bogged down in logistics of revenge plots

Without this all-consuming motivation, the novel would lose its powerful undercurrent of vengeance, and Dantès's actions—from his daring escape to his meticulously orchestrated plans for justice—would lack the emotional weight that makes this story a classic.

Example 2

Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" trilogy sees Katniss Everdeen's unwavering motivation to protect her beloved sister, which propels her into the heart of the deadly arena. Her selfless love and determination to shield her sister from harm compel her to make choices that defy the Capitol's tyrannical regime, setting in motion a chain of events that ignite a revolution.

Protecting Loved Ones as Motivation Pros and Cons:


  • Makes the character very sympathetic and relatable

  • Allows character to make sacrifices for a noble cause

  • Creates high stakes and tension around loved one's safety

  • Potential for strong emotional payoffs


  • Overly selfless motivation can make character one-dimensional

  • Constant rescuing can make loved one seem helpless

  • Limited dramatic potential if character succeeds quickly

  • Must be careful about overusing "sacrifice for family" trope

Without this profound motivation, Katniss's actions would lose their emotional resonance, and the story's powerful commentary on sacrifice, oppression, and resistance would be diminished.

Example 3

In Charles Dickens' beloved A Christmas Carol, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound transformation, driven by his motivation to overcome his own personal flaws and rediscover the joy and compassion he had long since forsaken. His journey from a bitter, miserable man to one filled with generosity and empathy is fueled by this internal drive for self-improvement but through external expression, interaction, and demonstration.

Overcoming Personal Flaws as Motivation Pros and Cons:


  • Creates room for deep character growth and transformation

  • Allows for exploration of universal human struggles

  • Redemptive character arcs are very satisfying

  • Character flaws can create entertaining humor/conflict


  • Risk of making flaws too exaggerated or unrealistic

  • Too much focus on flaws can make character unlikable

  • Redemption has to be earned through real effort

  • Some audiences prefer flawed characters stay that way

Without this motivation, Scrooge's redemptive arc would lose its impact, and the story's timeless message of hope and redemption would fall flat.

Example 4

The examples abound: Jay Gatsby's relentless pursuit of wealth and status in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, driven by his desire to win back the affection of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan;

Proving Oneself as Motivation Pros and Cons:


  • Creates clear goals and obstacles to overcome

  • Taps into relatable desire to be impressive/successful

  • Character striving allows exploration of ambition, status, etc.

  • Failure and sacrifice can create strong pathos


  • Comes across as materialistic if solely about wealth/status

  • Can make characters seem arrogant or self-absorbed

  • Limitations if character achieves their aim too quickly

  • Some audiences dislike characters obsessed with impressing others

Hercule Poirot's steadfast determination to unravel the truth and serve justice in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, propelled by his unwavering sense of moral duty.

Seeking Justice as Motivation Pros and Cons:


  • Creates mystery and problem for character to solve

  • Allows for exploration of moral/ethical themes

  • Potential for character to uncover shocking revelations

  • Reader satisfaction in resolving mystery


  • Mystery format can be restrictive to character development

  • Risks making character too clinical/analytical

  • Obtuse solutions can frustrate reader if not well-executed

  • Some audiences prefer stories without neat conclusions

The Result

These iconic characters and their motivations are inextricably woven into the fabric of their respective stories, shaping the plot with every choice they make. Imagine if Dantès had no desire for revenge, if Katniss lacked the motivation to protect her sister, if Scrooge remained content in his miserly ways, if Gatsby's ambitions were different, or if Poirot had no interest in solving the crime. The stories would unravel, the characters' actions would lose their emotional weight, and the narratives themselves would be fundamentally altered.

On the other hand, imagine if Dantes's motivation for revenge was placed on Katniss, or if Gatsby's ambitions were laid on top of Poirot's plot progression. The stories would also change because the motivations for the characters would urge them to make different choices. Each choice change means a different reaction, eventually turning the plot in different directions.

The Point is Emotional Connection

Character motivation is the beating heart of your story, transforming flat characters into dynamic ones whose desires, fears, and aspirations resonate with our own human experiences. It's the driving force that propels the plot forward, creating tension, conflict, and resolution.

As readers, understanding character motivation allows us to forge deeper connections with the stories we love. It invites us to empathize with the characters' struggles, to celebrate their triumphs, and to contemplate the choices that shape their ultimate resolutions. Every great story is the culmination of human emotions—desires and motivations that echo our own lived experience.

Characters in Girl in the Ashes

Check out my new novel, Girl in the Ashes, and see how I created character...