Elaboration of Motive

The most important tool that will help your audience believe in your characters is elaboration of motive. If you don’t tell your audience what a character’s motives are, the audience will assume the obvious motive: a simple, single motive, a naked archetype or a cliché. To make characters more believable, more real, we give them more complex, even contradictory motives, and we justify them better.

In the heroic fantasy film Conan the Barbarian, young Conan’s mother is killed before his eyes. He spends the rest of the film searching for the murderer. It isn’t hard for the audience to grasp the idea that he’s looking for revenge.

Let’s suppose that you wanted to start with the same situation, but you wanted Conan to be a more believable human being. His relentless obsession with revenge is not enough to sustain a realistic novel. The easiest step is to diversify–give him other motives, other interests, purposes and loyalties. There would be many times when he did not think of revenge.

A more daring step is to make him even more complex: He is searching for the murderer, not to kill him, but to serve him. In Conan’s mind the man’s cruelty has been transformed into justice–he killed my mother, thinks Conan, because she is weak and small. I will be strong and large, and he will find me worthy.

This kind of motivation is borderline pathological–but it is also intriguing and believable, not at all the predictable revenge cliché.

One of the advantages of prose fiction is that you can bring all of a character’s motives into the open. Because we can sometimes see into the characters’ minds, their thoughts and feelings, their plans and reactions, we can also watch them shift from one motive to another. We can go one layer deeper, and discover motives that the characters don’t even know they have.

Each new revelation of a main character’s motive is not a simple matter of adding more information–it revises all the information that has gone before. Events that we thought meant one thing now mean another. The present constantly revises the meaning of the past. Revelation of the past constantly revises the meaning of the present. This is the primary device of detective fiction (and psychoanalysis), but all other genres use the technique as well.

There is a cost. The discovery of motive always requires examination of a character’s thoughts, either through her dialogue with other characters, through direct telling of those thoughts, or by implication as new facts are revealed. All these examinations of motive come at the expense of action. A character who endlessly tries to understand her own motives eventually becomes a bore.


This article was taken from the course Creating Dynamic Characters. Click here to register for the course now!

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