Characters: Goals vs. Motivations

When writing characters in conflict, there’s two things you need to keep in mind. What are your characters’ goals? And what are their motivations?

These two things are often confused as different terms for the same thing. And… they’re not. Really, really not.

Let’s take a less-than-world-ending scenario: your hero’s goal is to pass that Organic Chemistry exam next week.

(Noooo! Anything but Organic Chem!!!)

Ahem. That’s his goal. But what is his motivation? Does he truly want to master the material? Is he just trying to scrape by so he can pass the course and never have to look at aldehydes again? Is he in a rivalry with another OC student, and determined to beat their grade by as many points as possible? Have his parents promised him a fun summer night to himself if he brings home that C? Has the professor sneered at him that he can never learn this stuff, and the hero is going to show them, show them all-!

The goal is what the character wants to do. But depending on his motivation, and his basic character, how he achieves that goal is going to be different.

Want to master the material? Study, study, study, and maybe try to find a tutor who can explain it a different way from the instructor. Scrape by? Memorize everything you can and pray. Show them all? The hero’s more likely to spend late nights burning the midnight oil and let less important social stuff fall by the wayside. Rivalry, or the promise of money? Cheating might become the more acceptable option, if all that matters is achieving that grade.

And then you get into the fun stuff of, do all your characters have the same goals? Or the same motivations?

If your characters are at all human and not a hivemind, the answer to that is going to be no. Which means you get to pick where they’re alike, where they’re different, and how that builds conflict into your story. Quick tip: characters with different motivations but the same goal are like your standard adventuring party, working together. Characters with the same motivation but different goals? That’s a protagonist/antagonist setup.

The Leverage TV show is a good example of this. (Also Strange Hero Yi Zhi Mei, for much the same reasons.) The Leverage crew has a plain if not simple goal: find bad guys the law hasn’t handled, and bring them crashing down. But at least to start, they have very different motivations. Parker loves stealing, Sophie playing a part, Hardison the thrill of cracking systems, Elliot making up for past violent mistakes, and Nathan… well, he’s a bundle of issues in a bottle, but he wants to be the help he wishes someone had been when he needed it. And he also has a personal motivation of outsmarting the people he’s up against.

Which runs right into Sterling, out to outsmart the people he’s up against.

Same motivation. Two different goals: Stirling to abide by the law and catch criminals, Nathan to do what he thinks is right, breaking the law all the way. And this drives a fair amount of conflict in the show.

Yi Zhi Mei has the same conflict between Li Gexiao and Ying Wuqiu, when it turns out their shared motivation is to take corrupt minister Yan Song down for the lives he’s destroyed. Only Li Gexiao’s goal is to keep other people alive and rescue them, while Ying Wuqiu will use and kill anyone to make sure Yan Song is not just taken down, but taken down in a way that is utterly humiliating before he’s executed.

Know what your character wants. Know why he wants it. Together, they’ll shape how your hero responds to whatever mess you throw him in. Make it a good one!

9 thoughts on “Characters: Goals vs. Motivations

  1. Or as I’ve found for myself, the journalism/investigation questions help a lot at character creation.

    Who is this person? What do they want (long-term, short-term, etc)? Where are they (location, social status, etc)? When are they (got to frame a time period we’re in)? Why do they want the things they do? How are they going to get those?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. One of the tricky things with goals and motivations too, even aside from figuring them out is establishing them in the first place, is handling them when they change.

    Like, the rivalry test example. Main character spends all his time trying to outdo his rival. Then a cute chick shows up and he’s.. suddenly not nearly as motivated about the test, and wants to win her affections. Or maybe he is still motivated about the test but just does not have the time to do all the test prep he wants and also socialize with her. Cue crisis.

    It’s dang hard, ’cause the change has to fit the character and the circumstances, and it has to be clear to the reader but you can’t just spell it out either. And you have to figure out how much the character even realizes the shift, and how much they can articulate it and the reasons behind it.


    1. I sum that up as “the character changed to be out-of-character in a way that is in-character for them” . The motivations/goals they had before usually inform the motivations/goals they will have later in some way. One of my favorite examples of this is Shikamaru Nara from Naruto. He starts the series as a Lazy Genius who is only motivated to help out once things get interesting… and ends it as the Tactician… and one of the *worst* people to wind up on the bad side of; he cares a ton about everyone he’s close with and he *will* come up with the efficient way to take almost anyone down who threatens them. And it doesn’t ever feel out-of-character that he changes so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To be honest, I’m so happy when they have either a goal or a motivation that I don’t bother untangling them.

    It seems like a lot of characters just seem to wander around at random reacting to things.

    “Well I have power, so I don’t have to worry about it. I’ll just do whatever!”

    Potentially even more frustrating is the Negative Motivation.
    Instead of saying “I want X” they say “I don’t want Y.”

    This is a problem because it doesn’t actually drive them.
    There’s infinite possibilities for *not* doing something.

    This leaves things nice and open-ended for the author, but it leaves the readers floundering wondering “why are they doing this? What do they want?”

    It also prevents them from adapting and compromising.
    When they’re only motivation is “freedom” then any constraint is “giving up,” even if they’re getting something they want.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Negative motivations are fine as long as they can be properly translated into positive goals. I don’t want to go to wizard school; I need to trick these wizards into thinking the spell was mistaken. I don’t want to marry the prince; I need to prevent my fairy godmother from forcing me to the ball.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Conflicts can be resolved, often too neatly, if one character shows another a different goal that will fill his motivation.

    Conflicts work best when goals are in direct collision and there’s no alternative.


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