Beyond Character Goal and Motivation—The Longing and the Lack

Beyond Character Goal and Motivation—The Longing and the Lack

Beyond Character Goal and Motivation—The Longing and the Lack

Figuring out why your characters do what they do can be some of the hardest work of writing, and a common area where a story may fall short. You can’t just force your characters into the action of the plot you’ve created—what makes a story and characters feel organic, fully fleshed, and believable is letting readers see what’s driving the characters into the actions they take. What compels them to act and react the way they do.

The question isn’t as straightforward as it seems—a lot of layers go into your characters’ actions, reactions, and behavior. And it can be complicated by the typical “goal/motivation” concept often presented as the holy grail of characterization, which is useful, but a bit simplistic.

A goal is generally defined as “what your character wants,” but identifying the “brass ring” your character strives for is just the tip of the clichéd iceberg.

Motivation is usually taken to mean “why your character wants that thing,” but there’s much more to that story too.

Goals and motivations that aren’t fully, deeply developed can lead to characters who feel flat, unengaging, or unbelievable, hampering reader investment in your story. And without a deeper understanding of what your character truly longs for and what drives that longing, often a story will stall out or lose its way once the initial impetus winds down (hello, 35K-word midbook sag, you old nemesis, you…).

Goals and motivations that aren’t fully, deeply developed can lead to characters who feel flat, unengaging, or unbelievable, hampering reader investment in your story.

Let’s take a specific example: Say your protagonist wants to be an architect (goal) because she dreams of creating eco-friendly, sustainable buildings that can revolutionize cities, improve people’s daily lives, and adapt to global warming (motivation). On the surface this looks good, and this is where many authors will start writing, confident that they’ve checked the right character-development boxes to give their character a clear goal and motivation that creates agency and momentum.

But that type of simple goal is just an external or tangible manifestation of something deeper that your character actually wants. And her true motivation—her reasons for wanting that particular thing—are an outgrowth of much deeper, more foundational core needs within her as well. And these deep-rooted levels of goal and motivation are where a story’s power and punch truly lie.

What does that actually mean, though, and what does it look like on the page?

Read More: Working Backward to Create Fully Fleshed Protagonists

More than Goal: External and Internal Longing

Let’s go back to our wannabe architect. First you, as the author, need to clarify what that means to her exactly—specifically what her actual goal is. Vagueness and generalizations lead to vague, generalized characters.

  • Clarify and define the external goal: Does she want to study architecture in school? Is she currently trying to get her license? Working at an architecture firm as an assistant and dreaming of leading her own projects? Or working in another field entirely but always dreamed of being an architect?

And what does that dream actually look like to her? Is it designing landmark buildings like high-rise offices or residences? Public-use structures like train stations and concert halls? Dream homes for individual families? Something else?

In her dreams surrounding her goal is she leading a team of people or working alone? Working at a major firm or in her own small boutique agency? An industry leader or working behind the scenes? Etc.

What will help you circle in on these specific answers that bring a character to life is figuring out what’s beneath her ostensible goal of “being an architect”—what she actually longs for that her external goal is the means to helping her gain. Which leads to the second part of creating fully-fleshed goals:

  • Define what internal longing drives the external goal: Does she want notoriety and acclaim? Creative challenges and fulfillment? To make a mark in the world? To improve people’s lives? To succeed as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, and blaze a trail for others?

That deeper internal longing behind that external goal—what she is truly striving for—can be more than just one thing, and any combination of things. But the “goal” as it’s often understood and defined in most writing craft—which is usually taken to mean a character’s external goal—is simply a means to a greater end for your character, not the end in and of itself.

That greater end—the deeper longing—is what you must define as the author if you want characters who feel three-dimensional, relatable, and real, and whose goals sustain the story.

And then you must discover the engine that drives her toward it—what makes her want that goal.

Read more: Is Your Protagonist Focused on the Wrong Goal?

More than Motivation: Conscious and Subconscious Needs

The reason your character wants what she wants is the propulsive force behind her actions and behaviors throughout a story in pursuit of that thing, the root of three-dimensional characterization, strong story stakes, and propulsive momentum.

But as with the simplistic definition of goal that writers are often taught, motivation is far more complex than simply “why the character wants what she wants.” It’s an attempt to obtain something that she needs—the thing that fills some internal lack within her.

Motivation is far more complex than simply “why the character wants what she wants.” It’s an attempt to obtain something that she needs—the thing that fills some internal lack within her.

Let’s say the ostensible motivation behind your character’s goal of becoming an architect has to do with the buildings she will design and the good they may do in the world and people’s lives.

That’s her external motivation, the top-level “why” that drives her toward her goal. Defining that is a good start in fleshing out your character.

Perhaps as a child she read about Zaha Hadid, the first female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize who broke barriers of both gender and design, and whose unique, fluid structures that defined city skylines thrilled your character’s soul.

But that external why is just scratching the surface. What made Hadid and her career speak to your character so strongly, specifically? What is the need behind that motivation?

Perhaps her father put all of his focus on his sons and treated her as if she were simply being groomed to be a man’s appendage and was incapable of achieving anything of her own, and she wants to prove him wrong. That’s her internal conscious need.

But you can dig deeper still. What’s actually underneath that drive that motivates her—the lack behind the need?

Perhaps she craves approval or recognition she felt she never got from her family. Maybe she internalized her father’s message and feels self-doubt or a lack of confidence about her own abilities. That’s her internal subconscious lack—and that’s the real force(s) that drives her. And the force that will drive the character arc and thus your story more powerfully.

Let’s try a couple more variations as practice, using the same basic example of a woman who wants to become an architect.


  • External longing (specific goal): She dreams of designing energy-efficient, affordable multiple-family residential buildings that will revolutionize the industry.
  • External motivation: She grew up in a low-income area where she saw her family and the people in her community struggle every day and live in run-down, inefficient homes where their rent enriched their landlord but never let these families get ahead.
  • Internal conscious need: She watched her parents’ spark slowly fade as they struggled to support their family and give them opportunities, and felt powerless to do anything to help the people she loved. Now she’s determined to help other families avoid their fate.
  • Internal (perhaps subconscious) lack: Perhaps she feels a sense of profound injustice or envy or resentment of those with money and power that makes her feel less-than.

Let’s try one last example:

  • External longing (specific goal): To create modern, streamlined, aesthetically elegant buildings that fit into the environment and enhance people’s lives.
  • External motivation: Her parents took her to see Fallingwater when she was a child, and she was captured by Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in harmony with nature and responsive to how people actually live.
  • Internal conscious need: She grew up in a messy, chaotic, unpredictable environment and feels a powerful need for order and control.
  • Internal (perhaps subconscious) lack: Her upbringing left her feeling chronically stressed and insecure, as if everything is in imminent danger of falling apart.

If this kind of character development seems a bit complicated, it’s because it is…because human beings are incredibly complex. One reason so many stories can fall victim to cardboard characters is that authors may rely on the bare-minimum craft definitions of goal and motivation to animate their characters, which doesn’t take into account the vast depth and richness of the human psyche.

Read more: The Best Character Tool You May Not Be Using

As an author, you are creating life—and that’s a major undertaking, one great authors don’t take lightly. Character is the basis of all great story—making sure yours are real, fully developed, and believable is the key to creating compelling stories, and characters who come to life.

How about you, authors—do you struggle with developing your characters’ goals and motivations? Or stop too soon, not digging deep enough to get at what really drives them? How do you flesh out your characters and discover what truly compels their actions and behavior? Do you have resources you use to broaden your understanding of their inner makeup, and/or the human psyche?

14 Comments. Leave new

  • I think your architect protagonist is the perfect person to tackle celebrities using too much water in their California hoods. (I just saw it on the news) Hopefully, your architect designed the celebrity mansions and has a blueprint , so she can covertly sneak in to turn off their water supply!

    In her youth she was denied clean water when she was kidnapped and held captive in a celebrity potting shed.

    Reply
  • I’ve written a mystery/detective story I’m not satisfied with. I think the plot is OK. I think the ending is satisfying. And I think the story is flat. And I think it’s flat because the protagonist is clever and witty, but flat. And I think your post nails the problem, I don’t know him and what moves him at the levels you suggest. The best tool I can think of is to write his history, outside and inside, events and reactions to see if I can get some life into him and his story. I welcome your reaction to this and/or any suggestion.

    BTW, I really enjoyed your seminar on editing yesterday. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bob–that’s one of my favorite courses to teach.

      Digging into character is the hardest work of writing–we’re creating whole humans! And they have to feel real and three-dimensional, and SO much goes into that. I’m actually working on a follow-up book to Intuitive Editing right now about exactly that, Intuitive Character Development.

      Meanwhile it might be helpful to look back at some of my previous character posts here. And you may already know how highly I think of Sol Stein’s writing about writing–his two books are excellent guides all around, not least for character.

      Yes, the more you can think about who your protag is as a person, his history, the context of his life and who he is in the world, etc., the more real he’ll become. It’s hard work…but also fun. 🙂 Good luck!

      Reply
  • Maryann Kovalski
    July 14, 2022 5:58 pm

    Mine is a mother/daughter story.

    Through dint of astonishing will, Minnie overcomes abandonment, teenaged pregnancy, poverty, obesity and an enabling mother who is a fabulous cook.

    Minnie vows to overcome and never, ever let her daughter get fat. She becomes a weight loss tycoon who can make any woman thin- except the thorn in her side- her daughter.

    Judi is so suffocated by her dynamic mother, she does not know what she wants and goes from failure to failure. Her wants have been suffocated before they have been able to surface.

    She passively eats and eats (which may not be so passive, I am thinking as I write this) and this drives weight-obsessed Minnie berserk with frustration. Minnie has wanted one thing in life: to save her daughter from everything she suffered.

    It rings credible maybe, but who wants to read about someone, in this case Minnie’s daughter, who seems to want nothing but carbohydrates and a couch?

    Of course Judi, at twenty four in Part II, wants to love and be loved and be a success at something, but has felt so daunted, she only fails.

    Only in the very end does she do a hard thing, but that hard thing will destroy her mother, whom, deep down, she loves and admires and wants to be.

    It’s a comedy, but like all comedies, my book, Hungry Women has a dark underpinning.

    I just don’t know how to give the daughter more agency, be less reactive. With a mother like hers, reactive is the only way she, or anyone, can be. It’s driving me crazy!

    Reply
    • I really like this layered story, Maryann–such good baked-in conflicts, and wonderful push-pull with both women’s feelings for each other, as well as their goals. I like that despite its heavy themes it’s a dark comedy, and the subject matter feels so relatable.

      I agree with you that Judi’s eating probably isn’t passive at all–or at least it’s stronger narratively if it isn’t. That’s a great place to start digging to see what’s really behind that. (This post I wrote about digging backward may help.) I don’t think eating is all she wants at all–she’s eating to fill a lack inside her of whatever it is she really wants. What is that? You’re on the right track with her longings for love and success…but deeper than that, what’s the psychological underpinning that makes her want that thing? What’s missing for her–the lack? I suspect it has plenty to do with her feelings about her successful, overbearing, well-intentioned but smothering mom. There are some great psychology books that may help (I am a big believer in that as fuel to develop character): Try Too Perfect by Allan Mallinger and Jeannette Dewyze, Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride, and Feeling Good by David Burns.

      Also, reactive isn’t a bad thing–it’s good narrative conflict and tension, as long as it’s consistent with who Judi is and we (readers) understand why she is reacting, and to what, and how. This is all really complex stuff–but to me the most fun and rewarding part of writing.

      You guys are all inspiring me–I’m writing a follow-up to Intuitive Editing about character development and you’re keeping my fires burning!

      Reply
      • Maryann Kovalski
        July 18, 2022 6:34 pm

        Thanks so much for this response, Tiffany. I’m am ordering those books immediately.

        It’s more of a challenge (for me anyway) to create an interesting reactive character, but it’s worth the dig.

        Reply
        • Character is the biggest challenge of writing, to me. It’s the key element, and writers are creating HUMANS. It’s a lot, if you’re going to do it with nuance and dimension and believability. I hope the books help–let me know!

          Reply
  • Carol Sundstrom (pen name: Martta Karol)
    July 15, 2022 11:38 pm

    Wow, Tiffany! You’ve zeroed in on what really matters, the complexity and core meanings unique and central to being individual human beings. The REAL stuff: the whys, what it all begins with and where it leads. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have to chuckle a bit, since just before I read this I filled out your prologue survey and included a comment about concerns I have about such deep characterization for a highly complex protagonist in my novel-in-progress. You get it, and most (by far) editors don’t (as well as people in general), which has made me fearful, big-time, about investing precious funds in a developmental editor (especially because right now, in my 5th revision and focused largely on enhancing these precise aspects of my literary fiction novel, such attuned help is what I know I need and have been longing for). I still have some work to do–incl. big word count–and I don’t know if you’d be interested in working with me or have openings in your schedule for new clients with debut books like mine, but when my ms is ready for an editor’s eyes, I’m hoping I can at least check in with you to see what if anything’s possible. I would absolutely love to have you help me bring my novel to life.

    Reply
    • Ha! Well, you help keep my fire lit for the follow-up book I’m working on, Intuitive Character Development, which is just what you describe–deep characterization for creating complex, believable characters. I’m happy the post was helpful to you.

      I’d always love to chat about possibly working together. I’m pretty well booked for the rest of this year and not yet booking into next, but drop me a line anytime and we can chat a bit more. Thanks for reading, and commenting–and filling out my survey! That really helps me develop my presentations.

      Reply
      • Carol Sundstrom
        July 18, 2022 12:40 am

        Thanks, Tiffany. I’ll be in touch. I have your book, Intuitive Editing, by the way, and have been using it to help me with my revision process. And per your recommendation, I also have Sol Stein’s book. So glad you’re working on another with the deep characterization focus. I think it’s needed. There are lots of “same old/same old” books on character development, but I suspect you’ll bring a perspective that more deeply addresses just how complex people are so as to help us writers bring REAL people to the page. I look forward to it!

        Reply
  • Another awesome post! I start out by understanding my character’s wound (misbelief, lack, flawed worldview, etc.), then keep asking myself why? until I’ve drilled down to the essence of who they really are. That also helps inform their goals, because what they want externally is usually something they think will fill that hole, or need. I am trying to adopt a new way of designing my stories by first fully understanding the character in the way you have written in this post, and THEN crafting a plot that challenges that character to learn the theme of the story.

    Reply
    • I love that, Cate! I’m fascinated by character (and people) psychology–why we do what we do–and beginning with your character’s inner misapprehension is such a juicy way of circling in on that. Your “working backward” approach is resonant to me as well. I think it’s such a useful way to mine out layers in your characters–plus it lets you start from where you are, which helps create cohesive characters. And yes, as you point out–once we know who a character is and why they do what they and what their vulnerabilities and lacks are, man, it sure makes it easier to determine what they do in the course of the story to fill that lack…! Thanks for a great comment and sharing your process.

      Reply

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