January 26, 2017

The Most Important Question in Storytelling: “Why?”

Question mark on white background with text: Character Motivations: Give Me a "Why?"

Last time, editor Naomi Hughes joined us to share the three most common storytelling issues she sees. I chimed in at the end of her post to add a bonus fourth issue.

A common problem I see—even in traditionally published books—is Missing Motivations. I promised to dig into this issue in a future post, and today is as good of a day as any, so let’s see what we can discover. *smile*

The Basis of Storytelling is the Question “Why?”

We’ve probably heard that many authors come up with their story idea by thinking of a “what if?” What if a woman’s lottery win leads to trouble?

Okay, what about it? That’s a story seed, but it’s not yet a story. Why would we care about this woman or her troubles?

Instead of what if?, a question that better gets us to the heart of a story might be why?

  • Why would a lottery win lead to trouble?” helps us find the story to go with that initial situation.
  • Why are these troubles happening now and not earlier?” helps us find where our story should start.
  • Why would readers care?” helps us figure out what’s going to make our story special.

Similarly, we have to think through the why questions when it comes to our characters:

  • A character’s goal might feel random and irrelevant if readers don’t understand why they have that goal. Why are they involved? What’s their personal stake in the situation?
  • A character might seem inconsistent, stupid, flat, or unlikable if readers don’t know why they’re acting a certain way. Why are they going down into that dark basement with the spooky sounds? Why are they being so mean to the other characters?

“Why” Helps Develop Our Characters

Character motivations are at the heart of all these “why” questions:

  • Why are they saying what they’re saying?
  • Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Why are they planning what they’re planning?
  • Why are they thinking what they’re thinking?

Motivations drive reader understanding, so if readers don’t know why a character is doing something, the character might come across as Too Stupid To Live or a puppet to the plot.

As readers, we know we can forgive a lot if we understand where someone is coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing. So giving at least hints of the answers to those questions will help readers relate to our characters.

Goals, Needs, and Personal Stakes Are Key

As Naomi mentioned in her post, it’s important that our characters have a personal stake in the outcome of a story. Even in a plot-driven story, our character needs something, and that need provides a personal stake in their goal.

For example, a hero wouldn’t chase the bad guy because it’s their job. They chase the bad guy because they burn with the need for justice, and that means stopping this guy. If the hero didn’t care about justice, they wouldn’t get involved.

That need also provides the motivation. Why does the character decide to do xyz? Because they care, because the goal is a step toward their needs.

Where to Watch Out for Missing Motivations

  • Expressions of Stakes:

At the beginning of the story and whenever the obstacles get significantly bigger, we should touch on why it’s so important to the character to succeed. Many of us would be tempted to give up in the face of their obstacles, so readers need to understand how the character is finding the determination to stick it out before their behavior becomes unbelievable.

  • Emotional Turning Points:

If a character changes their mind about how they feel about a situation or another character, we should show that evolution in their thoughts. Do they have an epiphany about their true feelings? Does another character call out an inconsistency in their behavior?

  • Changing Their Behavior:

Change is hard, and good intentions often aren’t enough. Just like how in real life, an ultimatum might help us follow through on good intentions, our characters will often do better if we trigger their change by forcing them into a corner and giving them no choice.

  • Working against Their Best Interest:

If a character does or says something that conflicts with what they claim they want, we should follow their thought process. What rationalization or justification do they use? Are the stakes big enough to make that behavior believable?

  • Acting Illogically or Non-Obviously:

If a character acts in a way that’s different from how readers would likely choose, we should show why their behavior is logical for that character. For example, if a character seemingly lashes out for no reason, we can dig deeper to show the reason. Did something trigger them or hit a nerve? Is it related to a backstory wound? Do they have reason to think the lashing out would help the other person?

  • Antagonists/Villains:

As Naomi mentioned in her guest post, we want to make sure our antagonists/villains (and all secondary characters for that matter) have reasons for their behavior. Otherwise, they’ll come off as flat and a mustache-twirling cliché.

  • Plot Twists:

If a character changes their mind about what they want, we must show a trigger (a why) for that change. Do they have an epiphany about fighting for the wrong side?

  • Strengthen Themes:

Often at the end of a story, we might want to drive home the themes of the story, which usually revolve around how the character has changed. Showing how their motivations stand at the end of the story might clarify how they’ve changed after learning their lesson.

How to Fill in Missing Motivations

Obviously, if we have to make characters do something for the plot to work, we need to give them really good reasons to do that thing, and those reasons need to feel true to the character to be believable. As mentioned above, we can ensure the character’s needs support their motivation for the goal.

For additional ideas in how we can fill in our Missing Motivations, here are links and excerpts to some of my posts about motivations:

“Which character has less obvious motivations or goals and readers would benefit from the insight of their POV? We can think about the motivations and what will be revealed with one character over another.”

 “POV is all about motivations, because it shows how a character sees and feels about the world. Understanding where she’s at emotionally in a scene will determine how she acts in the situation. If a character is just following the plot, how she acts doesn’t feel like it matters. Get inside her head and think about what she’d do and why. Don’t let her wander around doing things without any sense of direction.” (guest post by Janice Hardy)

“Your character will reveal through their thoughts (a.k.a. internal dialogue, internal monologue, internalizations) why they’re doing what they’re doing and why it matters to them.

Avoid infodump-style shares. We need to share their motivations, but we don’t need to do it all at once in a stop-the-action-dead information dump. We can weave it in with the action, drip-feeding it to the reader when the character would naturally think about it.

Phrase the motivation in the way our character would think about it. We’re in deep POV so we need to share motivations in a natural way rather than in a in a telling or stating-a-fact way.

Only share motivations for non-obvious actions. If the bad guy throws a punch at our viewpoint character and she ducks, we don’t need to explain why she ducked. Any time our character’s motivations are obvious, we can trust the reader is intelligent enough to figure it out.” (guest post by Marcy Kennedy)

 “Characters don’t always fully understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. For example, many a romance has a hero or heroine doing something “stupid” because they like the other person, but they might not be consciously aware that they like the other person yet.

In that case, we can use a writing device similar to the idea of “hanging a lantern/lampshade” on the action, where we point out the inconsistency. We might have the character question themselves, be unable to come up with a logical answer yet (or they’ll rationalize an answer), and do the action anyway. This technique does leave the truth in the subtext, but we’ve made the question explicit, so as long as the truth comes out later, readers will understand.

Note that we usually don’t want use this lampshade technique when a logical answer never comes to light later. Think of when a heroine goes into a dark basement simply because the plot needs her to. A good subconscious reason isn’t going to be revealed later, so this technique won’t erase the fact that she’s a puppet to the plot.”

“Make motivations clear by revealing the fears, worries, goals, etc. driving the character’s actions. We’re always more sympathetic to someone if we know their struggles. A character might be a big jerk to others, but if we know why—especially if the why makes them sympathetic, such as how they’re a victim of misfortune in some way—we’ll be more understanding.”

“Backstory that affects motivation feels natural because it has a place in the story. It matters to the character and to the things readers care about. If the backstory has no bearing on what the protagonist is trying to do in that scene (either directly or by affecting a decision made in that scene) then it’s probably not needed.” (guest post by Janice Hardy)

“While motivations are often anchored in obvious causes, other times they’ll bubble up from a deeper place within our character. In those cases, a simple cause-and-effect chain won’t explain their reaction to the current trigger.

So readers would need more information to understand why the character feels compelled to act or react a certain way even though it doesn’t quite fit the current situation.

Why is such-and-such so important to them?
Why are they expecting the worst in this situation?
Why are they acting against their objective best interest?”

“We can use layers to provide insight into the why behind the character’s reaction. For example, a character who’s numb might be methodical and nearly “blank.” But other emotions might be driving the character to that numbness.

We can use those secondary emotions to show motivation. The methodical, unthinking actions can show readers that the character is numb, but hints of the other emotions can share the why.

Think of the primary emotion in numb characters as the what (what’s making them numb) and the secondary emotions as the why, and we can help readers understand, sympathize, or empathize with our characters. That understanding can help readers emotionally connect to unemotional characters.”

“The same decision could have radically different subtext depending on the motivation—why they make the choice they do. Motivations add another layer to the character’s values and the story’s themes.

Competing motivations can be woven throughout a story so no one scene has to show the character debating but, but, but…, as they work through every option they’re facing.

… A character’s choices could show them one way, but their internal thoughts about their motivations could show them another way.”

“We can be clear about our characters’ motivations at the end of the story to show how they’ve changed after learning the lesson. We’ll often see this motivation in the character’s conscious thoughts or words spoken aloud (many times as they’re disputing the antagonist’s point of view). Those character thoughts and words show that the character learned their lesson, and they directly express the theme.

… These techniques strengthen the sense of the character arc and give additional “evidence” for the new belief.”

*whew* This post turned out a lot longer than I planned, but I hope it’s helpful to see all of these techniques in one place. Remember that we might need feedback from beta readers and/or editors to help us identify where these motivations might be missing.

Whether we’re able to use this post to find missing motivations ourselves or we need help from others, hopefully we can improve our work. With clearer motivations, readers will relate and understand our characters better, which means they’ll be more likely to stick around and root for their success all the way to the last page. *smile*

Have you noticed missing motivations in published books, where you didn’t understand why characters acted a certain way? Does that frustrate you and make you feel less connected to the character? Or does that make you think the author just needed them to act that way for the plot? Do you struggle to include motivations for your characters? Do you think this post might help?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Jay Hicks
Jay Hicks

Jami – this is GOLD! You have just created my one stop writing reference guide right here.
I can’t thank you enough.
Best wishes,
Jay, Australia.

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Great post. This just might be what I need to develop in my characters. Have had some critique about not connecting to my characters, plot, and readers not invested in the story and characters. Had no idea how to fix that. This “character motivation” might do it.
Stay Well,

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Greetings … again,
Wow. I just finished reading through the post again and all the links to the various other posts. There is A LOT of material here. Thank you so much for doing all this work. It is appreciated.
I am feeling that the more I learn, the more I realize I have further to go.
And so it goes.
Stay Well,

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, I will have to come back and read this again.
Sometimes my character will start the story doing something motivated by curiosity. The emotional connection and drive develop as they progress.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I especially dislike a big info dump in the early chapters as mentioned above!


Long, but very interesting. Thanks for sharing all these insights, and the linked posts. I admit to mistaking the “what if” for motivation. Why is a much better question to delve into motivation.


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