Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Motivation—the WHY of the Story You're Writing

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Why does a human tell a story? Why do any of us bare our soul to another person? There are as many reasons as there are people with reasons, but by translating how humans do it into how characters do it, we can create believable, non-cardboard characters that readers love.

WHY is the question that starts everything off. We know our character NEEDS something, which becomes the goal, and that’s often what we focus on. But WHY that character wants something is the reason for the story in the first place. 

So, what does your character want? And WHY? Without a strong WHY, the story has no depth—it goes nowhere. WHY did Dorothy want to save Toto from the Wicked Witch? Because Toto was (just guessing here) her link to her dead parents. WHY did she want to go home? 

Because the “over the rainbow” place was scary as heck. WHY did Neo take the red pill? Because his “normal” life was terrible and he was willing to take a chance on a better one (well, at least one where he was in control). WHY did Maximus kill the emperor? Partially for revenge, of course, but also because Commodus was evil. WHY did Karl want to take his house to Paradise Falls? Because that’s where Ellie wanted to go and it was the only way he could still feel close to her.

Each one of these characters—and I could name hundreds more—are known to the general reading/movie-going public because their WHY was so strong that we remember them. 

How do we give our characters a WHY? It’s not as simple as the HOW to do it, because we use writing techniques (speech, action, body language, and thought) to show the how. But WHY is more nuanced and what we’re actually showing with those character expressions. 

Let’s take a character—we’ll call him Sam. Sam wants to buy a new car. We can SEE and HEAR how he feels about it—he’s excited and expresses it in speech (“I love it!”), body language (his eyes dilate and his heart races when he sees the car he wants), action (he lovingly runs a finger down the hood), and thought (Wow! Can I afford this one?). 

But WHY does he want that car? Is it to have something to attract that pretty girl he’s been wanting to ask to the dance? Or to race cars with his friends? What if, instead, his WHY is because he needs a car big enough for the new baby? How will he react then? All of his character expressions will change, even if he really likes the new car. But instead, his speech might be “What are the safety ratings?” His body language is cautious (standing back and evaluating). Action? Opening the back doors and seeing how well a car seat will fit. Thoughts? Is it safe enough?

What’s the same? The goal of buying a car. What’s the difference? WHY he’s buying that car. Just that one fact changes everything. 

So, when you start writing character, giving them a WHY will also give you the way they will express that WHY.

How do you allow your characters to express?


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 upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Sarah, nicely done. The why is the heart of the story.

  2. This was very informative and helpful, Sarah. Great post.

  3. Learned so much this morning through you post, Sally. Thank you for sharing you great writing.

    1. Thanks, Diane! I enjoyed the process -- had to think about it myself. :)