The Little Things Novice Writers Miss: Side Characters' Motivations


Last month we started exploring the missing story elements that often mark a writer's work as amateur, beginning with a topic dear to my heart: animals. Today we'll explore a fundamental aspect of storytelling that even experienced writers sometimes neglect: our side characters’ motivations.

To be honest, I'm kind of kicking myself that this wasn't my first idea. I've spent several months on this blog detailing the importance of understanding not just your main character, but also every character (or at least every character worth naming). When I read a series, it's almost always a side character whom I fall most in love with, like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter or Simon from The Mortal Instruments.

On the other hand, I've encountered many books—and even more movies—where the side characters feel like cardboard cut-outs created only to serve the plot.

Giving our side characters motivations, especially ones not directly related to the main character or story line, is one of the easiest ways to make them feel like real people. It implies that your characters have life beyond the story. Motivation also makes it staying in character easier—after all, you know what they're working toward.

Types of motivation

We could spend the rest of this article—and several more—discussing the different types of motivation, but for now, let's focus on the primary two: internal motivation and external motivation.

Internal motivation is motivation your character has because of their personality and life experience, such as motivation to become a musician. There might be some external reward eventually, like a career in music, but at least at first, your character's only reward is the satisfaction that they've done it.

External motivation is motivation created by forces outside of your character's control, such as the desire to rescue a kidnapped friend. There is usually an obvious external reward for accomplishing these types of goals, like a rescued friend’s eternal gratitude.

The best characters have both types of motivation. This shows that they have complex internal lives, just like real people. Having both types also gives the character more opportunities to grow throughout your story, as they're able to accomplish—or fail to accomplish—multiple goals.

How to find the right motivation for your characters

So, how do you give your characters motivation? If you're doing your job right, there's a good chance they already have it. You just have to find out what it is. You can do this several different ways depending on how well you know the character. The first is a technique we'll call "character brainstorming" for the sake of clarity; the second method involves expanding your extended character profile.

METHOD #1: CHARACTER BRAINSTORMING

If you only know a little bit about your character, you can find their motivation in three steps:

STEP ONE: Grab your favorite writing tools and set a timer for 15 minutes.

STEP TWO: List everything you know about your character—literally every single thing you can think of.

STEP THREE: Continue building your list, this time with new facts about your character. Write everything down, no matter how silly it seems. Keep writing until the timer goes off.

STEP FOUR: Circle the core facts—the things that are most important to your character's personality and development.

STEP FIVE: Now that you know what matters to your character, ask what desires those things are connected to. If nothing leaps out at you right away, walk away from the list for a while and come back to it. Eventually something will stand out as your character's true purpose. From there, you can map out their individual desires.

METHOD #2: EXTENDING THE CHARACTER PROFILE

This method is reserved for characters you already know pretty well. It is most useful for minor characters you want to turn into major characters.

For this exercise, we'll assume you already have a basic profile containing your character's name, physical traits, and basic backstory. Since all these notes are in place already, this method usually takes only a few minutes.

Start by rereading everything. You might think you remember all the details, but that's rarely true. Comb through your character's story and bold anything that stands out. If inspiration strikes, expand the backstory.

Create an area for "motivation" and start writing. Yes, this is as simple as it sounds. Create a new line and label it "Motivation." Write whatever comes to mind first, and write for as long as you feel necessary. You can revisit and change this motivation later, but if you know the character well, the first thing will often be the right thing.

Final Advice

Many different elements must come together to make a truly excellent story. With enough skill you can make up for a story lacking in certain areas, but one thing you should never ignore is your side characters' motivations. Those goals are what make them feel like real people rather than props created to hold your story up. And in the end, isn't that what we all want from our characters?

Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story elements that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.

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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.

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