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Seventeen years ago next month I sold a house I adored in a town I loved and moved halfway across the country to a city I’d visited exactly twice for less than two cumulative weeks. I had no job awaiting me, no friends there, and at the time I first started considering Austin, Texas, I’d had no clue where I was going to live.
I am frequently asked why I moved here, and often I offer a generalized version of the truth: I liked it. Austin had a vibe. Something about it drew me.
I just had a feeling.
That might make for an entertaining anecdote in life, but in story vague, unsupported explanations like that can risk feeling like an author shortcut and leave readers unengaged.
And yet very often in working on stories with authors, I point out areas where characters’ motivations feel unclear, fuzzy, or absent: The characters “just have a feeling.” They make great leaps of logic because they “just know” or sense something. They may experience a major shift in their arc because they suddenly have a realization out of nowhere.
Very often it’s something like my own story, where characters are starting over, or they may be fleeing from something, or just wanting to find themselves. But if your protagonists don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, stories can feel vague, static, and low stakes.
Readers need to know what we’re rooting for, and have some idea what the character is chasing and when they’re getting close. It’s okay if the goal that they think they are pursuing isn’t their actual or ultimate goal, but then realizing that needs to be an intrinsic part of their journey, one that we see on the page, and very quickly we need to understand what their clear, concrete goals actually are–and crucially, what drives them to want those things.
Digging Deeper into Motivation
The truth about my own story, for instance, isn’t quite as nebulous as the easy answer I offer: “I knew I wanted to leave Florida and figured I’d just drive till I found the place I wanted to live, but when I landed in Austin I knew that was it.”
Well, yes. And no.
The full story of how I landed in Austin started with why I was leaving Florida. Dig even just a little deeper and there were specific, concrete reasons: I was 39 years old and well down the road of applying to become a foster mother with the intention of eventually adopting as a single mom.
Scratch deeper: My real motivation for doing that was that I wanted a family, a sense of being more than just me and my doggy, although he was the creature that turned me from a solitary me into a we that felt like a household, a family, and I realized how much I liked it. Scratch a little deeper: It felt like love and belonging and things I realized I craved on an even greater level.
Planning to be a single mom, especially as a freelancer who worked odd hours and part of whose job involved going to concerts and theaters and bars at night to write entertainment reviews, was a serious commitment, and one I started thinking more deeply on to make sure I was doing the right thing for the right reasons.
That led me to dig down to yet another level of motivation: The reason I had planned to adopt children was because living in a quiet mostly older community in Florida, I realized I had resigned myself to probably never meeting a life partner. And in the absence of that I decided to take the reins and at least have kids.
Once I knew what I actually wanted, I realized it was a disservice to me and to any family I might create to launch into it for the wrong reasons, and that was when I started thinking about moving somewhere I might have better odds of meeting someone I could make a life with, and maybe eventually kids.
Even then Austin was not a random or unmotivated choice. It was my first visit there that did indeed create a spark of connection, but I made a second trip after that to confirm it. While I was there I looked into real estate prices, different areas of the city, what lifestyle I could afford there. I checked out the culture, the people, the climate. People, I researched the demographics of the city, its education levels and the political environment and even the ratio of men to women and the average age brackets.
That seemingly “just knowing” unmotivated choice is looking a lot more deliberate now, isn’t it?
My glib Austin answer makes for a fun anecdote but a lousy story, at least fictionally speaking. The truth is that even in life, though we may think we don’t know why we’re doing something—or even most things—most of the time if we look deeply enough and are honest enough with ourselves, we can root out what drives us, and specifically what we are pursuing.
This is what you must do with your characters. Fuzzy motivations and vague goals lead to weak characterization that will not draw a reader in or deeply invest them in your character.
With all due respect to the Eagles, you have to tell us why, or at least know and show it on the page.
Vague, General Motivations Lead to Vague, General Stories
When a character “just knows” something in a story, like what they want or what to do next, or how another character is feeling, or they experience something unpaved-in and unmotivated on the page, like an immediate strong connection with another character, it robs the reader of the opportunity to be a direct part of the story, to see it unspooling on the page in front of them for them to witness firsthand and draw conclusions from what they see. That’s what fully engages readers and brings stories to life.
In life we may indeed have gut reactions when our atavistic instincts are picking up on clues below the radar of our conscious understanding. But your job as an author is to root out where those clues are actually coming from—specifically what your characters are seeing, noticing, reacting to—and get them on the page so readers see the connective tissue.
What’s your character actually picking up on, concretely, that makes her draw a certain conclusion? Or, conversely, what fantasy is she spinning in her own mind based on the thinnest of reasons that is leading to hasty or mistaken or superficial conclusions?
For instance, in my dating days a red flag I learned to avoid like the plague was the person who came on like gangbusters and was immediately sure we were perfect for each other. Inevitably it led to disillusionment and disappointment—for both of us—because they were basing their conclusion on their own private narrative about who I was before they had gotten to know who I actually was.
Everyone has their own reasons for that kind of extrapolation: fear of uncertainty, a fierce longing for love, perhaps some previous experience the current situation echoes or that they are trying to re-create.
You’re the author. You will figure out specifically what is happening inside your character that is prompting their actions and behavior, what wants or vulnerabilities or longings the situation is hitting on, what assumptions or illusions or misunderstandings, what personal history. But you must define it concretely and put it on the page or readers don’t buy in.
Read more: “Using Assumptions to Strengthen Your Storytelling”
Magical realizations almost always have a concrete motivational underpinning. There’s no message in the ether telling us the right path or pulling back the curtain on life secrets just when we need it. (Would that it were so.)
Putting Character Motivation on the Page
Motivations, realizations, and mind shifts spring from things we have experienced, learned, endured, wrestled with, even if they are only processed in our subconscious. Your character himself may not yet be aware of those motivations and goals, but you as the author must be, and the reader needs enough clues to draw those conclusions for ourselves or your characters feel devicey and flat.
The easiest way to flesh character motivation out is to get to know your characters better by asking questions and digging deeper, working backward to follow the trail that leads to your characters’ true driving motivations and goals—the way I did above with my reasons for moving to Austin.
What are those conclusions based on? Dig past the surface, the easy answer to what your character wants and mine deeper. Why do they want, or think they want, that thing? What deeper desire or drive lies beneath the vague or glib answer?
If your character “just knows” how another character is feeling, what subconscious cues are they picking up on that you as the author can show us? A raised eyebrow, a passing expression, a frozen glance? What is your character interpreting from that? What conclusions are they drawing? Your character doesn’t necessarily need to recognize what they’re picking up on—but readers do, or your character actions, reactions, and behaviors feel unmotivated and false.
Lack of specificity in almost every area of story will hamper its effectiveness and impact—especially with character motivation, which drives every action, reaction, and behavior your character evinces—which drives the character arc, plot and entire story. Ironically, the more specific and concrete you can be in defining what drives your protagonist, the more universal and relatable your character and story will be.
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