Welcome to part 3 of crafting characters. I did warn you there might be quite a few posts on this topic, but I hope you’re enjoying the journey. In the last post, I talked about building our characters and all of the things we needed to start doing that. If you haven’t yet, visit the post and take a look at the list/template I provided.
Once I have most of the template filled in, I jump right to my character’s Most Painful Life Moment (MPLM), main goal, and motivation. I think about these all at the same time because they’re all related, but the MPLM comes first. Some people call the MPLM The Wound. It really doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s all the same—a past hurt. Think about your character and his or her backstory. Now decide what happened to that character that helped shape who they are today. For example, if you’ve created a character whose sole purpose is to find and bring down the bad guys to the exclusion of all else, why did that character come to that decision and what did she do to make that happen?
In Vow of Justice, my character Allison (Allie) Radcliffe lost her entire family to a murder when she was a teenager. The murderer was never caught, and she vowed to avenge their deaths. That was her goal: She wanted revenge. So, for Allie, her MPLM was the murder of her family. That doesn’t mean she didn’t have other painful things happen. She certainly did. But, that one thing was the most painful; and it defined the course of her life. Thankfully, her partner, Linc St. John, wasn’t about to let his partner and the woman he loved do something that would land her in prison—like kill someone in cold blood.
Now that I have my MPLM figured out, it’s easy to come up with a goal and the motivation because they’re all linked. But don’t be fooled. A character’s goal and motivation are two very different things. While they’re related, they serve different purposes.
A goal in a novel refers to what a character wants. It represents a specific objective or outcome that the character actively pursues. Goals provide direction to the character’s actions and decisions, and they often serve as the driving force behind the plot—such as Allie’s search for her family’s killer. Goals can be concrete and tangible, such as finding a killer; or they can be more abstract, such as seeking love or personal redemption.
Motivation, on the other hand, delves into the underlying reasons, desires, or emotions that compel a character to pursue their goals. It explores what is driving or influencing their behavior and/or choices. Motivations provide the rationale for why a character is pursuing a particular goal and help readers understand their actions on a more psychological level. Motivation is the backbone of their actions. For example, Allie’s motivation to find her family’s killer is driven by the desperate need to avenge their deaths—although this motivation does morph into the need for justice.
So, the short version of all of that: A goal (set by the character due to the MPLM) represents the specific objective a character works to achieve throughout the story, while motivation specifies the underlying reasons and emotions behind the character’s desire to pursue that goal.
Just to be clear, yes, goals and motivation can change as the story progresses. Because as your character changes (becomes a better person, admits to needing help, addresses a flaw, etc.) they may set new goals with new motivation propelling them. It’s not a bad thing when that happens; it just shows your characters are “real” people. At least they’ll feel real to the reader. 😊
Now, it’s your turn. Think about your current story’s character’s MPLM, goal, and motivation. Are they clear, or do they need some work? Is the goal strong enough to carry the story through 80K words? Is the motivation real and believable? Feel free to do this simple exercise, replacing my information with yours; and post it in the comments if you like:
MPLM: Allie’s family is murdered and she’s the only survivor.
Goal: To find and kill the person who murdered her family so she can finally have “peace.”
Motivation: Initially, to exact revenge for what he did because she believes that’s the only way she will ever find peace. But with the help of the hero, she admits that murder will not ever bring her peace and changes her goal to seeing justice done. The goal is still to find the person and make him pay—but by doing things the right way and bringing him to justice.