Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy…

People talk about character motivation all the time– what’s the character’s inner yearning, the secret desire of their heart, the thing that makes them get out of bed in the morning?

I’m not here to talk about that.

Instead I want to talk about something much more basic– which means that it often gets overlooked in favor of the fancier stuff.

Not thinking clearly…

Every story hinges upon a dose of stupidity: Bilbo suffers a temporary lapse of sanity and joins a dwarven adventuring party. Luke Skywalker chases a malfunctioning droid into the desert. Voldemort decides to listen to a prophecy, instead of dismissing it as the rambling of a drunken fraud.

This sort of irrational behavior tends to be driven by that ‘inner yearning’ people keep talking about, which tend to drive the randomness of our daily decisions. We often need to have these failures in judgement in order to have a story at all.

Used too generously, though, irrational randomness makes for a weak plot and confusing characters. It’s most glaring in secondary characters, especially in ensemble adventures: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but you’re on an adventure– I’ll join you, maybe?”

Motivation matters

Often these are people who wander around, as alone and aimless as extras on Dora the Explorer. They have no friends, family, social ties, or responsibilities that might inhibit them from picking up their belongings and traipsing off with some random protagonist they just met, often into certain death. What were these people even doing before the protagonist graced them with his/her presence?

Fully-developed characters have lives– they have homework to do, or a job to show up for; they have families and friends; even if they’re street urchins, they’ve got their own turf to keep an eye on, lest the other gangs start moving in.

I realize that some stories are meant to be ensembles– but characters still need more personal motivation to join the team than “because the author said so”.

Breaking even

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the Dwarves are assisted by a whole slew of people: Elrond, the Eagles, Beorn, the Riverfolk. And these people all help out, according to the laws of hospitality (most of them due to favors called in by Gandalf), but they never really extend their services outside their given territory. After all, these are all important people with their own duties to take care of. They owed Gandalf, but they didn’t owe him all that much.

Han Solo
Han Solo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Star Wars, Han Solo and Chewbacca are only in it for the money (their biggest obligation being a massive debt to Jabba the Hutt), and by the time they realize what they’re getting into, they’re already in over their heads. If they’d known from the outset that they would become heroes in an intergalactic uprising, they probably would have walked away– no amount of money is worth that much trouble, and they aren’t about to pursue certain death over an elevator pitch about morality.

Most characters are intended to be decently rational. That means they aren’t going to change their routine or abandon their obligations unless the apparent benefits outweigh the foreseeable drawbacks. 

Do you have any unmotivated characters that are driving you crazy? What motivations are driving your characters to join the hero’s cause? Tell us about it in the comments!