Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Magic of Motivation in Your Novel

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Why do characters do what they do? Just like real humans, characters have extremely good reasons. Knowing WHY a character does something is essential – they MUST have a reason, even if the reader doesn't get it at first. But that's only half of the equation. Writers must also understand and express the reaction that follows.

Motivation originates from backstory. People do what they do because of what has happened to them in the past, just like characters. Each time a character reacts, it's because of a past event, no matter what that event is.

First, there's a stimulus. In the movie, Up, the contractor reaches for the mailbox Carl and Ellie painted together. Carl reacts by hitting the man with his cane which causes a ruckus and, ultimately, Carl's decision to take the house to Paradise Falls. If we hadn't just seen the entire flashback of Carl and Ellie's love story, we wouldn't know why that mailbox was so important to Carl, important enough to smack someone. Carl's reaction is immediate and visceral. He doesn't think about consequences, like getting stuck in a nursing home for assaulting someone. He just does it. Because we know why, we understand and sympathize. 

In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy has just rescued Peter from a train and, because she isn't allowed to walk into his hospital room, she mutters, "But I'm going to marry him" under her breath. The nurse who hears her say this immediately assumes she's his fiancé and announces it to everyone, including his family who have, of course, never met her. That's the stimulus. How does Lucy react? Instead of denying it and walking away, she allows herself to be coerced into a fake engagement which takes the whole movie to untangle. Why does she react the way she does? Because, as we've already seen by then, she allows people to take advantage of her all the time. Her boss has just compelled her to work on the holidays because "everyone else has a family." She also wants a family more than she wants anything else because she's so very alone. So it's easy for her to go along with the lie, until something (Jack) comes along to change her mind.

Both of these examples are microcosms of the rest of the movies, but both are also pivotal to the telling of the story because the audience understands WHY a character follows a certain pattern. It doesn't have to be told in backstory – which each of these two does – but it works. And the stimulus/reaction couplets, based on motivation, continue throughout. WHY does Carl use the balloons to move the house? Because he sold balloons at the park and understands how they work. WHY does Lucy finally tell the truth? Because she has finally realized that someone else's family doesn't count. She wants her own. So she stands her ground in front of a bunch of people she's learned to care about and confesses, knowing she may lose everything she thought she ever wanted.

There are lots of ways to explain a character's motivation. She can TELL it in dialogue or he can SHOW it in some sort of action or body language. Or both. Carl's backstory is told in the first eight minutes of the movie in a flashback. Lucy shows her story, as she digs herself into an ever-deepening hole, until it takes a wedding to produce the truth. Consistency is everything, because the reader will expect a character to stay "in character" throughout the story. Or, at least, until the character realizes the way he or she has been doing things doesn't work and is willing to make a change.

Regardless of how you do it, ultimately, backstory/motivation gives the reader a clear understanding of how the character ticks. It's not that hard to do, once the process is set up.

I usually figure out the stimulus first. SOMETHING happens.

Joe wants to ask Susie to the prom. He walks into the hamburger joint where he knows she'll be working and hears Sam ask her to go. (Stimulus) 

Next is the Reaction. What does Joe do? Does he knock Sam off the bar stool? Does he turn around and walk away? Does he demand that Susie go with him instead? Any of these work. But which is best? 

That depends on Joe. What is his motivation? What kind of person is he? Did he come up "the hard way" or did his dad tell him never to fight? 

Only the writer knows! And getting it down onto paper helps the reader to understand.

Do you know your characters well enough to know WHY they do what they do? 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. The impact and importance of motivation hit me years ago when I took an online class taught by Laurie Schnebly Campbell. The class was Plot Via Motivation. And you sure can! That made a world of difference in my writing.

    1. It makes a huge difference, doesn't it? Our characters go from cardboard to "real" in a heartbeat.

      Good for you!

  2. Always dynamic info! Thank you, Sally!

  3. Wow. You really get down to the nuts and bolts of writing. I wish I could take one of your classes. Thanks for this info.

    1. I teach at Would love to have you in class!

  4. Really liked this encouragement. I'm at a crucial point in the last part of my latest WIP and it's good to keep this in mind. ;) Donevy

    1. Great! Hope it helps! And, remember, it builds on itself -- each stimulus/reaction creates the next one.
      Good luck!

  5. Thanks Sally for the practical examples and training. :)

  6. Thanks for your helpful tips on motivation. Good stuff.