Posted On January 3, 2014 by Print This Post

Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, Goals with Heather Webb

Your characters need layers right? Right – otherwise they’re just cardboard cutout characters, and who wants that? Heather Webb shows us how to make our characters better, stronger, faster. =)

Heather Webb SmilingFor Part One, we talked about how analyzing our own voices (our inner critics) can help us layer our characters. Today we’ll look at another major factor that shapes our protagonist’s journey—their motivations and goals and how they’re reflected in their actions.

Let’s begin with motivation:

Motivation (both external and internal) propels a character to make choices and act. Motivations are, in essence, emotions or a set of beliefs that a character feels AS A RESULT of something that has happened to them in the past (backstory).

A few ways a character may be motivated are:

To be loved/accepted

Action, on the other hand, is how a character responds to these motivations. Actions not only shed light on the character themselves, but they also drive the plot.


Action: Carol ran three miles every day this week.

Motivation:  She wants to be a healthy person who lives a long life.

Not to be confused with Author Motivation: Carol needs to run every day that week so a creepy stalker can memorize her pattern. Also, the book needs a thriller element introduced.

But if Carol despises exercise and wouldn’t be caught dead in running shorts, the reader won’t believe Carol will run at all, never mind every day that week. This means the character’s motivation needs to be very clear from the first chapter. Many querying writers receive rejections because their characters lack motivation and GOALS.

Which brings me to my next point. A character’s goal is NOT the same thing as their motivation. Think of it this way:

A Goal is the big prize at the end of all of that motivation. Carol’s goal is to lose 20 pounds, though her motivation is to be healthy.

Character Goals are measurable and tangible, concrete.


In my historical novel Becoming Josephine that JUST RELEASED THREE DAYS AGO from Penguin (EEEP!)…

Action: Josephine goes for a walk with her six year old daughter on her sugar plantation.

Motivation: She loves to walk in her jungle home to see the plants (she’s a collector) and to get away from her household.

Author Motivation: Josephine and her daughter need to stumble into the slave quarters so A.) the reader will witness how the revolution abroad is causing rebellion among the slaves all the way in her Caribbean home, B.) their lives can be threatened when a few surround them on their way back to the plantation house. Basically a thriller element is needed at that point in the manuscript.

Character Goal: Josephine aims to burn some of her six year old’s energy off on the walk.

From the examples, we can see that motivation, goals, and actions are essential in portraying a character’s view of the world as well as driving the plot. Without them, the story falls flat and the protagonist lacks a reason for BEING.

Stay tuned for the third and final part of this series on Character Motivation, in which we’ll discuss creating conflict to ensure our protagonist’s arc.


What’s your method on defining and introducing your character’s goals and motivation? 

Aimee Denim joins us on Monday, January 6th. 


Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance and the award-winning where she poses as Twitter mistress. She may also be found at The Debutante Ball, a site about the journey to publication for debut novelists.

Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE: A NOVEL, has already been featured in The Wall Street Journal and releases as a lead title from Plume/Penguin December 31, 2013.

Visit her blog: or find her on Twitter @msheatherwebb

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12 Responses to “Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, Goals with Heather Webb”

  1. Nicely laid out, Heather! Motivation also comes from a person being driven to satisfy a human need. Cardinal needs are powerful and steer human behavior more so than anything else, and one’s experiences, both good and bad (character backstory) heightens the drive to have these needs satisfied:

    Physiological: the need to secure one’s biological and physiological needs

    Safety and Security: the need to keep oneself and one’s loved ones safe

    Love and Belonging: the need to form meaningful connections with others

    Esteem and Recognition: the need to increase one’s sense of esteem

    Self-Actualization: the need to realize one’s full potential and achieve personal fulfillment

    (adapted from The Hierarchy of Needs for use in our Positive Trait Thesaurus book)

    Take one of these needs away (like safety) and the character is driven to act to gain it back.

    Glad you tackled this topic as Motivation is a difficult one for many to pin down, and the motivation/reaction partnership is so critical to get right. 🙂

    Posted by angelaackerman | January 3, 2014, 7:54 am
  2. Wonderful comment, Angela. Thank you for stopping by.:) Yes, motivation is very much about satisfying a human need. I need to pick up a copy of your book!

    Posted by Heather Webb | January 3, 2014, 8:17 am
  3. Morning Heather!

    I like that – Author Motivation! Sometimes getting the characters motivation to match the author’s motivation is a bit of a struggle. =)

    A lot of times to find my characters motivation, I have to write out a scene in a few different ways…sometimes *I* am intruding way too much on my character’s life, and then I’m unsatisfied with the scene until I figure out what would my character do? WWMCD? =)

    Thanks for a great post Heather and congrats on your new book!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 3, 2014, 8:29 am
  4. Thanks, Carrie. And you said it! Matching author motivations with character motivations can be really tricky. I, too, find myself rewriting scenes to make them more authentic to my character’s voice, rather than my own.

    Posted by Heather Webb | January 3, 2014, 8:52 am
  5. I love the way you’ve broken the concept of motivation down into concrete categories, especially when it comes to author motivation. Sometimes it’s too easy to get caught up in what the author needs to do in order to move the story forward without considering what the character’s reason is for acting the way he or she does. Thanks, Heather!

    Posted by Lori Schafer | January 3, 2014, 10:02 am
  6. That’s a new way of looking at it for me and I like it a lot. Matching the author’s motivation in there makes so much sense! Thank you. 🙂

    Posted by Robyn LaRue | January 3, 2014, 11:58 am
  7. Thanks for stopping by, Robyn. 🙂

    Posted by Heather Webb | January 3, 2014, 4:31 pm
  8. Bookmarked!!! Thanks so much for the specific examples. This is really helpful!

    Hope you have a wonderful New Year, Heather!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 3, 2014, 11:43 pm
  9. I love how you parsed this out with specific examples… very helpful!

    Before I had only imagined the character’s “everyday goal” (dealing with relationships) and “big-time goal” (surviving encounter with villains). I like the idea of identifying the use for the author too.


    Posted by Christine @ Better Novel Project | January 4, 2014, 2:40 pm


  1. […] Today we'll look at another major factor that shapes our protagonist's journey—their motivations and goals and how they're reflected in their actions.  […]

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