13.18: Naturally Revealing Character Motivation

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

What motivates us? What really motivates us? Why? (Note: our motivations are probably not in service of some overarching plot.) How can we use this information to believably motivate characters?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Take a character motivation and express it via free indirect speech. Now take something that has been expressed via free indirect speech and unpack it into the narrative.

The Ten Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki

8 thoughts on “13.18: Naturally Revealing Character Motivation”

  1. Hi guys,

    I’ve been thinkng a lot about this issue, I even came across it when some people started having a forum battle on a writing site. I know that is particularly challenging for those suffering with anxiety or depression or on anti-depressants to feel motivated.

    There’s a book called Drive by Daniel H. Pink which is quite popular and actually worth reading/listening to. There’s actually many reads on motivation. Books from, ‘You are a Badass,” to, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” to, “Grit.”

    There’s also a book called ‘The Motivation Myth,” which talks about the carrot and stick both being problematic ideas.

    All pretty much saying the same thing. But since this podcast is about motivating people to write, and this episode happens to be about finding character motivations, I thought that this link could have been drawn more.

    But for writing character motivations this was really helpful, thank you!

  2. Hey,

    Since it started May 1st, Story-A-Day has a list prompts for everyday in May. It’s like NanoWrimo but for short-story writers. I think it would be good of you to announce this to your wider audience. http://storyaday.org/

  3. so…is this a way to convert or rehabilitate “He thought” or He knew” sentences? Labeled as telling instead of showing, I was taught never use ‘thought’, ‘knew’ or ‘felt’ in POV 3rd. That is what using free indirect speech would do, no? I hope I haven’t got the wrong end of the stick here.

  4. I don’t think that I understand what “free, indirect speech” is still. I am so sorry! Do you have any resources on the web that you would recommend on this topic?

  5. The wikipedia article on free indirect speech explains it pretty well. Recognizing it is actually much harder than using it. If you read and write a lot of third-person limited, you probably do it instinctively.

    I think the best part of this episode is the separation between Objective and Superobjective.

    Motivation (objective) is really the basic logic of the story. Why is the character doing what they’re doing? And why is this the only way for them to achieve their goal? Why don’t they just call the police? Why don’t they just fly to Mordor? Anticipate those questions, and answer them in the story. Give the reader the information that makes the story make sense.

    Then you can turn to the Superobjective, which is the question of why the plot is so personally meaningful to the character. What abstract goal drives them to pursue this concrete goal? What backstory are they reacting to?

    The Superobjective adds a lot to the story, but the story buckles if you don’t have the Objective worked out first.

  6. The hardcore four, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, hurried right along and talked about revealing character motivation without falling into the uncanny valley where readers just can’t believe a character would do that. Plot and motivation, super-objective and scene objective, goals and stakes, and plenty of free indirect speech. But when you want a milkshake, say so! And when the character changes, clue the reader in, okay? Go ahead, read the transcript, available now in the archives or over here…


    And remember, when you wish upon a star, your dreams…

  7. This was a good podcast, quite advanced.
    Love the point that the best books feel like the the characters are pushing the plot, rather than the plot pushing the characters. So important.
    I’ve seen a lot of work fall into a trap of trying to have a character with mysterious motivations, but if we’re not given enough to go on the character feels like a puppet for the plot to push around. I’ve found the best is to have the character at least one layer of surface motivations (so we can follow what they’re doing and what they might do next) with hints that there’s hidden agenda’s underneath (so you can still have intrigue and twists).
    Does anyone have any advice on how to give just enough info to make a mysterious character believable without having to give away all their secrets?

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