Using character motivation and beliefs to raise the stakes

Every story needs character motivation. Here are some basics.

Girl on roof
Every character has a different viewpoint.
Look for it and incorporate it into their behaviors and actions.

First, every protagonist needs some sort of motivation to be relatable. Even if we don’t agree with the motivation, knowing it helps us understand the choices the character makes, thereby making the story deeper.

Second, the character doesn’t have to know or can be wrong about their motivation. For example, a character may think they want to win a major science fair award, but what they really want is acceptance.

Third, character motivation can change. Your character wants to find an ancient artifact, but later realizes that if it were to get into the wrong hands, catastrophe would happen. Her motivation changes from wanting to put it in a museum to wanting to destroy it.

Every story also needs action, or plot.

Plot is the actions and reactions taken on the journey to achieve character goal. I say journey because if your character took one action and achieved their goal it wouldn’t be much of a story. Obstacles have to be placed along the way, detours need to be taken, and stakes need to be raised in order for the reader to be satisfied when the final outcome happens.

Play around with character motivation, journey and outcome variations to create a unique story. One way is to use beliefs in juxtaposition to wants.

Beliefs can both enhance character motivation and up the stakes.

Our beliefs can be strong motivators that either play nice with our wants or can act against them. When beliefs act against your character’s wants you get tension which will add momentum to your story.

And don’t forget other character’s beliefs. Our everyday decisions are made by our beliefs more than they are made by our wants. Give your characters different wants and different beliefs. Now imagine how these effect the decisions they make.

I recently finished Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated,” and can’t stop thinking about it. What a journey.

One of the things I think Tara does well, although I’m sure many would disagree, is to let the reader know these are her memories. This is her story. However, she is honest enough to point out times her family remembered things differently. Sometimes that’s because of age. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to believe what they saw. Sometimes it’s because someone convinced them of a different version. Sometimes it’s faith based. Sometimes, it’s education.

Everyone has different reasons. Everyone has a different point of view.

Eye witness account is not reliable. Remember this as you write. If you have five people witness something, how will each one see it, and why do they see it differently?

Get examples from real life.

Take this article from WaPo. A mother took her two year old son to a naturopathic clinic where a doctor told her to take him to the hospital. She decided not to take him because she was worried she’d get in trouble because he wasn’t vaccinated. Instead she took him home.

The doctor, worried about the child, called the police. The police came to the house and tried to do a well check, but the parents wouldn’t let them in. The father said the fever had come down, and he didn’t want to pay for an expensive, unneeded trip to the hospital.

The police response was that they were doing their job and they had to see the child because they believed him to be in danger. After the parents refused multiple times, the police broke down the door and took the children. Shortly thereafter, a viral thread claimed the police took the children because they hadn’t been vaccinated.

Do you see how everyone in this story, including the social media people, had a different belief? Despite who you think was in the right, can you put yourself in each of their shoes? Can you see how despite wanting a different outcome, their beliefs led to actions that escalated the event?

As you write, look through each of your character’s eyes. Look for their character motivation, but also for their beliefs and ways these can cross paths in a way that forces your character to make a decision that puts their goal in danger.

Treat your characters as fully developed, unique people. Just like how Tara and her family don’t remember events in the same way, neither will your characters. Let them make decisions based on these ideas and feelings and see how it enriches your story.

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