It’s a go-to joke that’s so old that you rarely see an actor depicted who doesn’t spout the line, but it really is important. Every character needs a reason why they do things. Is the villainous henchman a true believer, or like in Iron Man 3, doe he only work with the villains for the paycheck? Is the hero in it for the abstract ideals of Truth and Justice(tm), because they want to save the person they love, or out of a desire for riches or glory? Kurt Vonnegut famously said in his rules of writing that “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
But I think we can do better.
Good goals are specific and concrete.
Abstractions are vague and, frankly, boring. When you’re looking for “love”, are you fantasizing about a hardworking man who will live in the suburbs and work while you raise your two point five children, or are you aiming for a charming outlaw biker to be your leather-clad trophy husband? When you’re looking for “freedom”, are you hoping for the freedom to become a doctor in a society that doesn’t allow members of your class to pursue medicine? Are you looking for an escape from an arranged marriage you’re not ready for? Are you looking for freedom from a specific abusive person who controls your life? Are you looking for freedom from the laws of physics? (Good luck with that last one, hon.)
When you spell out the concrete goal, it’s automatically tailored to the character’s story. Already they’re that much more unique than they were before.
Having a specific stated goal also allows for nuance in the outcome.
Maybe you got that American Dream nuclear family you were looking for, but learned it wasn’t quite what you hoped. Maybe you didn’t get that biker babe you were hoping to score, but fell in love with the open road instead.
Having a specific goal also helps you lay out the plans to achieve it.
Writer, character, and reader alike can sit back and ask how they intend to attract charming outlaws if they’re never going to set foot in a biker bar, whereas something as abstract as “love” really has no real steps you can take to attain it.
And that’s the single most important thing about a character’s motivation:
It’s only your motivation if you’re actively working toward it. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a daydream.