3 Reasons Character Motivation Matters

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Recently I read a Tweet from an agent. “Make your character’s motivations come through loud and clear in your query.” It seems that too many authors query, stating the character’s goal, but not the motivations behind the goal. 

Without motivations being stated loud and clear in the query, the answer was consistently “good luck placing this elsewhere.” Why is motivation such a big deal? 

Motivation Makes the Goal Matter 

Think about a book that pulled you in and wouldn’t let you go. Character goals vary from attempting to win the Triwizard Cup to trying to win a beauty pageant. Without motivation, you hear a character’s goals and think what is that and who cares? Motivation is what makes a goal meaningful. 

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry has been set up and has no choice but to compete. Failure could mean death to himself or his friends. Finding out who set him up alone is a powerful motivation. Add a struggle to survive and his goal is even more compelling. 

In Dumplin, Willodeen may be chubby but she’s comfortable with who she is until she starts dating a handsome private school boy. She can’t believe he loves her for who she is and her self-esteem plummets. She decides the best way to bolster her flagging confidence is to enter the pageant. 

Life or death. A girl struggling to rediscover her self-esteem. Motivations like these make readers care. 

Motivation Provides a Bridge to Believability 

Motivation is also what makes your characters believable. Me? I’ve never battled for to be a Triwizard winner and getting me on stage would take a miracle. These just aren’t goals I can identify with. But struggle? Most of us have battled, even if it wasn’t life-or-death, to meet a particular goal so we understand struggle. And at some point in our lives, we’ve lost faith in ourselves and our own abilities. We get wanting to find self-worth. I get that. I get wanting to believe in yourself. 

Your reader’s life may be completely different from your character’s life and that can make it hard to build reader interest. Fortunately, the right motivation can provide the bridge your reader needs to enter your character’s world. You do this by utilizing motivations and emotions with which your reader is familiar. 

Motivations Make Your Character Complex 

Last but not least, motivations are another way to create a complex character. All you have to do is set up conflicting goals. How do you do this? Give your character a goal that is in conflict with a core value. A character who values law and order has to break the rules to achieve their goal. A character who values her independence above all else has to work with others to achieve her goal. A character who values might has to turn to cunning. 

Motivations are essential when attempting to create believable characters, accessible stories and complex worlds that readers are eager to explore.  

And? Don’t forget to express these motivations clearly in your query letter. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 25 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins November 2, 2020) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins November 2, 2020). 


Margo Dill said...

I love your opening here. i talk a lot about character goals in my writing classes, but I think I need to add more about character motivation. It is definitely important to focus on WHY and make that WHY something people will think about. Great post!

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Sue for this information when it comes to character motivation. I definitely will heed this advice when submitting query letters.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You are so welcome!

I think it is something too many of us forget. It may be in our story but does this vital component make it into the query? Obviously not often enough or the agent would have said anything.


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