Ramblings on Motivation

Without motivation, there is no story. If there’s already a plot, it needs to be possible to get the characters motivated to do something about it. If there isn’t one already planned out, the characters need to want something enough to pull the story themselves.

When they don’t, bad things happen.

A character without motivation might follow the plot, but it’s a toe-dragging sort of follow, the kind that demands potty breaks at least once an hour and requests frequent rest stops, that balks at streams and foot-high jumps, that meanders when the path leads straight and walks headlong into a rock when the path turns. And that presupposes they’re interested enough to do that; I’ve seen (and in one circumstance played) characters whose response to their motivation going missing is “This is absurd, you people are idiots, I’m out of here” and heading off in the opposite direction. It’s real, but it’s not particularly good story. But almost worse is the one who just goes along with it because without it, there’s no point in being. You might as well use a zombie; at least they’ve usually got a goal, even if brains is a pretty prosaic character motivation.

A character without motivation is a quandary for the world. How do you make them tick? It’s the people who care about a situation, and care greatly, who are interesting; instead of letting the plot drop the clues they need in front of them, they go out searching. Instead of asking someone else, “So what do you want me to do now?”, they plan. A, B, C, right the way on through the alphabet, and then they skip onto a different writing system, on through as many alphabets as they can think of (and syllabaries, and logographs), and eventually move on to etwas because they have to call it something. (I only wish that line was original.) Life gives them lemons, they don’t just make lemonade; they use the seeds as ammunition and the rinds as fertilizer, or ask if one of those lemons might happen to be Ponderosas and see where they can go from there. But if someone’s just waiting for the end of the story to come to them, it’s a lot harder to drop complications that really resonate with them, and in the end, nobody’s heart is in it.

A character without motivation is just as much a quandary for the person who directs her. (Heaven help the writer, who has to be both.) Who is she? What does she want? Does she have anything worth living for? Who knows? If the character doesn’t have anything she’s really hyped about, why should the creator be hyped about any of it either? And if the creator isn’t hyped, the audience won’t be hyped, and if the audience, whether other players or readers or GM or someone else entirely, isn’t interested, what’s the point?

The answer? Let the character be motivated. If your character isn’t prone to coming up with her own, make something up. If she tends to find motivation in what happens to her, make a point of looking rather than just letting the story crash down around her. Where possible, express this motivation; it doesn’t do anyone any good if it’s never acted on. Don’t limit yourself to the original idea if something better comes along.

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