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Desire and Motivation

by William H. Coles

Desire. Wanting to have something or wanting something to happen.

Motivation (or motive). The reason someone acts or behaves in a certain way.

Desire and motivation are essences of good storytelling, and are among the most defining features of literary fiction. In reality, desire and motivation are integral and dependent on all the other elements of fiction; and the desire and motivations of characters may change, and certainly expand in ways that make them seem changed, with story development.

As we look at what desire and motivations can do in a story, we should keep in mind these principles:


  • In creating scenes, author knowledge of valid character desires allows writing that is maximally effective.
  • For storytelling, core character desires that drive all action are more effective than superficial-and poorly considered-desires that are questioned, either consciously or subconsciously by the reader, as significant for motivation.
  • Core desires of characters (and people) are not easily determined.
  • Motivations interact and must be logical for story and character, and a change in a motivation expressed in scene, thought, or even back story, will change the effects of other motivations.

At times, identification and incorporation of desires and motivations in early story drafts is difficult, but as characters develop and action in the plot progresses, incorporation in later drafts and revision becomes more practical, if not essential. Therefore, discovery of desire and motivations late in story creation often requires significant revision and restructuring.

In creating motivations, remember: significance (all consuming with serious consequences), credibility (would this character, as developed, really do this?), emotion (action from specific feelings from the character rather than abstract whimsy).

I. Overview

In essence, stories are about people, and to create great stories requires in depth consideration of characters’ desires and motivations. A character is not a few planks nailed together floating down with the currents of a river to a calm sea; a character is, instead, a carefully crafted one-person sailboat that must tack against the current, catching the right winds, struggling to move upstream to the river’s gushing source.  What makes the little sailboat struggle and why? It would be so easy to let the river dictate direction and destination.  It is sad for modern literature that many contemporary stories are simply descriptions of real or imagined events of characters floating through life.  But great fictional stories have logical desires and motivations that are embedded in story drama.

In memoir or biography, an author describes events that happened and interprets what the perceived desire and motivations of the character were from the actions in the story.  But in the fictional story, the author can imagine the best desires and motivations of a character and these desires and motivations must be strong; must drive the plot; must be logical and credible with improvement by multiple revisions; and must heighten the impact of the character reversal of existing thinking or enlightenment, i.e. theme and meaning. To be successful, the author must understand desires and motivations, build on desires and motivations with characterization, be open to discovery of more effective desires and motivations as writing progresses, and be willing to revise for most significant desires and motivations. Finally, the desire and motivations must relate directly to character change in thinking or enlightenment that creates meaning in a story.

II. How desire and motivation are used in literary fiction.

First, consider a common misconception: that great authors best create characters by (1) describing an interesting character from life with fictional tools, or (2) imagining an interesting character and then describe what has been imagined. The truth is: great characters are built layer by layer by actions and discovery, not just by describing features and traits, or by just describing feelings. Characters grow from every action made, every thought considered, every word of dialogue spoken. And each molecule of character development must have some relationship to the matter it creates, and much of the cumulative, synergistic interaction of the elements of character development are created by the overriding effect of a strong desire, recognizable by the reader, and logical motivations–as they relate to story and other character elements. Yet, paradoxically, most authors still describe characters from life, or imagined. And it must be said again, describing characters, rather than creating, loses the advantage of building a dynamic character who will act with desires and motives clear to the reader, will propel the plot forward, and will have some significant change in the thinking.

There is a second misconception; that a story that fails to provide the desired effect can be corrected by intensifying and expanding the prose. In fact, failed stories are often over written because authors seek to give significance through word choice, syntax, clever metaphors, and sentimentality when story structure and character desire and motivations need to be fixed. A significant story is created through actions woven into a beautiful fabric with the threads of desire and motivation.

Characters need unified and dominant strong desire and motives. This may not occur in life where we find people driven by many desires and motivations often with random application to life’s challenges. But characters are part of a structured story that requires significant, and focused reasons for action. This allows intensity in character development scene after scene, chapter after chapter, development that is cumulative and synergistic.

Core desires are fewer than might be expected and these core desires act as a premise underlying all character motivations in a story. Examples of good core desires for stories are not easy, but to get the idea, consider fear of eternal damnation is a better desire for an author to work with than guilt over a clandestine sexual experience. An unsatisfiable need for adoration provides broader application than an inability to pass by a mirror without looking. As character motivations are developed scene by scene, always seek the core desire that motivates. Then develop and revise accordingly, always seeking continuity from scene to scene.

Desire and motivation in literary fiction must be significant, but does not need to lead to violence or horror. Significant desire and motivation does not equate to murder, rape, or abuse of a child: significant motivations can result in beautiful interactions among characters. The literary fiction writer has the opportunity to create stories of lasting impact in dramatic and meaningful ways without violence-related suspense action-scenes. Literary fiction does not depend on the louder bang, the brighter flash, or the hotter fire for excellence. For the author, that is the joy and the challenge.

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