Middle Cat said something interesting the other day. He said: “Character is the most important part of any story. If you think back to any of your favorite books, or even movies, the thing you’ll remember most clearly is the character. And probably the most important part of that is character motivation. If you know what a character wants, plot and conflict are just an extension of that.” To which Human-Mom responded: “Oh my god why are you sticking your butt in my face? Fine! I’ll feed you.”
Then she tried to get up. Big Cat, who was sitting on her arm and refusing to move when she wiggled it, had a slightly different take on the matter: “Two characters can have similar motivations but vastly different personalities. That’s where we get that delightful lone wolf and cub cliche. Two very different characters wanting to get home, or wanting a place to call home, and forced into an uneasy alliance.”
Big Cat, Little Cat
“But that’s not the same thing at all,” shot back Middle Cat. “Just because you’re from the same podunk village doesn’t mean you have the same motivation.”
“It does, if your motivation is to find a home. You might have different motivations once you get there. You have to admit those are the most interesting stories. People who have the same temporary motivation but different longterm goals. The uneasy alliance. Like the alliance of the Whites during the Russian Revolution.”
Middle Cat knew he’d been beaten and slunk outside to take out his frustration on the local songbird population.
So how do you decide what motivates your characters? Do you decide based on the needs of the plot? Do you audition a character for a role in your story by writing a sample-chapter or sample monologue? Or do you like to have a freer sort of approach where you imagine a situation, imagine which characters might populate such a situation, and take it from there? There are lots of ways to write a story. And lots of ways to show what gets your characters up in the morning.
There are also different types of character motivation. There’s short-term and long-term goals. There’s heartfelt goals and grudging, or compromise, goals–things your character is willing to do for a price but wouldn’t do in a vacuum. Have fun with this. It really is the most interesting part of your story: what makes your characters tick. And your characters, in turn, are what make your story tick.
Three identical panels side-by-side. In each a pair of cats are sitting on a cushion, engaged in polite conversation with each other. A large orange (left) with orange stripes smiles down at a small grey (right) with grey stripes. The grey is looking off into the distance.
Big Cat: The gym again, Little Cat? You’ve really been taking care of yourself!
Little Cat: Yeah I… guess so.
Big Cat: Not to pry, but does that mean you’re dealing with your self-esteem issues?
Little Cat: Hah. No. It’s just that my overachievement complex is even stronger.
Big Cat: Oh. Well. I guess that’s… Um…
Little Cat: Too much to unpack in a polite conversation between coworkers? Yeah. I knew it as soon as I said it.