Monday, June 22, 2020

Finding Your Character's Core Motivation

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

For a long time, I struggled to find a new WIP's theme. Some authors know that from the get-go. Not me. I'm a slowpoke, I guess. For some, this doesn't matter. But for me, knowing the theme helps give me direction. Just like knowing my character's lie they believe. I'll explore the 8 Basic Lies next month. They go hand-in-hand. 

So, I set out to discover what themes truly are and make a list. Now, these are not to be mistaken for things like forgiveness and restoration. These are core motivations or themes. 

Core Motivations or Themes:

1. Belong: to be in the relation of a member, inhabitant; to have the proper qualifications; to be appropriately placed. Subthemes: abandonment, betrayal, rebellion.

2. Confidence: full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing; or belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities; self-confidence; self-reliance; assurance.

3. Fear or Facing Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

4. Needed: deemed necessary. 

5. Power: (can be related to sex) great or marked ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something; Strength, might, force; the possession of control or command over others; authority.

6. Security: freedom from danger, risk, from care, anxiety, doubt, financial cares, or from want; well-founded confidence. something that secures or makes safe; protection; defense. 

7. Self-actualization: the achievement of one's full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.

8. Worth: good or important enough to justify; usefulness or importance, as to the world, to a person, or for a purpose.

Once you know your character's story goal (i.e., new job, catch the criminal, land a starring role on Broadway, etc.) this will help with the internal goal. In my book When the Bough Breaks, my MC, Sienna, was adopted by an Irish couple. Her background was Italian and French. Dark hair, dark eyes, and an olive complexion left her feeing like an outsider, especially after—as it often happens—her parents later gave birth to four other children. Her internal motivation? #1 Belong. Everyone wants to belong. 

Her story goal was to lobby for legislation passage, but its passing meant the end to her finding her birth family and that sense of belonging. So, her external goal was the antagonist to her internal motivation. When your story can tie these elements together, you've got a terrific start. 

In my new release, In High Cotton, Maggie's core motivation is #6 Security. Security for herself and her son. Set in the Great Depression, it encompasses financial security and physical safety. Maggie's lie was she's a disappointment. She needs to be self-sufficient so she can prove she isn't a disappointment to herself and to her family. But the era and her father-in-law are working against her. The stakes are high. Her lie and core motivation make them higher. If she loses, it's both professional and psychological death. 

In the second book in my Georgia Magnolias series, On Sugar Hill, my MC is Cora Fitzgerald, a Vaudeville star. Her lie is she's not good enough. Her core motivation is #8 Worth. To have worth or be worthy. Cora must come home to care for her mother and mute aunt. Her father lost everything in the stock market crash and has committed suicide. But Cora has no skills but being a ventriloquist and voice thrower. How can she support them when everything she tries fails? And how can her internal goal of being worthy be realized? Her goal, lie, and core motivation work together to create a compelling story question and high stakes.

When the lie and the core motivation work against the character it deepens the story. In my current WIP, By the Sweet Gum, my MC Gennessee's core motivation is #7 Self-actualization. Her lie is she's a disappointment, but unlike Maggie's or In High Cotton, Gennessee isn't completely responsible for the financial security of her family—at least not in the beginning. Her lie leads to a fear of the unknown and of taking risks. Risks can mean failure, which exacerbate her lie of disappointing everyone. When circumstances necessitate she take a risk, her life and world unravel. 

Each of these core motivations work with the MC's lie to create high stakes to overcome. Next month, I'll discuss Lies Characters Believe and how to discover them.

Finding Your Character's Core Motivation - @AneMulligan on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her websiteAmazon Author pageFacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and The Write Conversation.  


  1. Thank you for showing how to dig into character motivation.

  2. Great tips, Ane. I like how the lie and motivation both work to create conflict and plot.
    In a sense, the character arc writes itself when you take the time to figure both.

    1. It's really fun to discover these when writing the backstory.

  3. Such good stuff! Thank you Ane!

    1. You're welcome, Dalyn. We can unpack some in Maranatha Masterminds.