Musing: Mapping Motivations

There are few things when it comes to writing that I enjoy from a mechanical view.  Usually the creation of the characters and putting the actual words on paper is the best part.   Delving into the motivations of a character is a stark exception.   I love doing it.

If I hit a brick wall with writing, the last thing I ever feel like doing is submitting to world building.   I say ‘world building’ like most people say curse words.  There’s no denying it’s useful, but more often than not it’s a pool of quick sand that saps away writing strength.  I see it as a compendium of wisdom one refers to fact check.

Character motivations are a rare exception.   Taking a moment to question why a character is doing something is fine in my book.   Mostly because it doesn’t take complex flow charts.   If you’re close to your characters and understand what makes them tick, it is a short and substantial road to better characters.  Ultimately, characters make the story.


I heard you like writing, so I put writing in your writing so you can write while you write.

So why do I love mapping out motivations?   Because I do so by telling a story in my head.   Effectively it is writing in your writing.   It’s a novel inception.

Point blank: I like writing, so mapping motivations comes natural to me.

It’s as simple as this.   There’s a game plan for your main character– someone you know fairly well– running into a minor character.  If the minor character plays into your characters whims they’ll feel like they’re made of cardboard.   So, it just takes a quick moment of on-the-fly writing.   Consider what kind of person would fill that role and come up with a quick story of how they got there.

It’s pretty fun after you’ve done it a few times.

Like any world building it just becomes an exercise in restraint.  This character shouldn’t and wouldn’t regurgitate their life story, but the events in their life dictate why they are trusting or a complete cynic.   You’d be surprised to see how well a character comes across when you have a clear image of them in your head.

We have a bad habit of treating people that aren’t us as something less than people.  If someone cuts you off on the road, it’s easy to assume they did so to make you mad.   The truth?   They more often did so because they’re in a hurry or aren’t paying attention.   Take that a step farther and consider why they might not be paying attention.  That person may be in a hurry to get home from work because their dog needs to get to the vet.


I’m pretty sure I’d give someone all the free things if I saw them do this.

The dog’s vet trip isn’t really important from a storytelling perspective, but it adds an invisible layer of depth to those around the main character.  It opens opportunities.  Something the main character does might inspire a minor character to cut them a break.   The reader might identify with the small detail and connect better with the character on a subconscious level.

Things look bleak for the main character, but he always goes out of his way to help animals.   As a result, he tends to have cat hair all over his jacket.  The minor character connects with the Main character because they can relate to this.

Yeah it’s a stretch, but all this happens in real time and its more organic than gigantic flow charts.   Give it a try.   You might have fun with it.

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