Developing character motive is the most difficult thing for me when I create characters. Even after creating characters, I question their motives. For someone who loves or hates a book based on its characters, I have the worst time creating my own. I can come up with their backstory. I can give them personalities. I can name them. But I can’t tell you why they do the things they do (beyond what they’re driven to do by external forces, of course).
I have tried defining a character’s motive based on what is most logical, what my motive would be, or what their motive should be. I haven’t tried defining a character’s motive by what it actually is, which is what I should have been doing.
The story I’m working on right now has a nasty villain, a demon witch that coerces the main characters into retrieving something for her. Originally, I had deduced that the demon wanted this object to gain power and destroy the world and kill all the humans and other evil things. That worked for a while. I wasn’t 100% happy with it, but I was about 85% of the way there. It was the most logical thing for a purely evil character to want. Then I thought of other reasons. If I was the villain, why would I want the object? Immortality? The demon is already immortal. Power? She’s already powerful. The power to do good and save the world from myself? Wait, she’s evil. (I’m secretly a paladin. I can’t imagine doing evil things.) Then I asked myself what would raise the stakes of the story… What could the demon do with the stone that would ruin the main character’s lives? What would cause the most conflict? I went back to the “destroy the world and everything that’s good and holy” motive. Still not happy with it. Too flat. Too generic.
So I sat down this morning and started brainstorming. I built a web diagram. (like that's the one I actually made --->)
I started with a generic idea, asking “why?” I thought of various reasons she might want this object of divine power. Each time I came up with an answer, I asked again, “why?” I wanted to find the most detailed motive I could muster, always asking “why?” and by golly, I finally figured it out.
Sometimes, you just have to work it out the old-fashioned way. In fact, I believe I'll use this method from now on. It's rather effective.
The villain’s motive was the biggest weakness of my story. The entire story is based around the villain's need, and without knowing what that was, I had a hard time getting past certain scenes that involved the motive. By doing the diagram, I figured out a) the motive, b) the villain's backstory, and c) the villains reason for choosing the MC to carry out her request... three things I hadn't quite figured out before today (and I've been working on this story for roughly eighteen months).
So what's the lesson today?
When developing a character's motive, you have to dig deep. You can't settle for the first thing that pops in your head and move on. Sometimes, you have to ask "why?" over and over again until the character finally relents and tells you exactly why they're doing something. Oftentimes, the motive is simple, such as being afraid, wanting to protect someone, or needing to exact revenge. It's easy to stop questioning their motives when the answer seems so clear-cut. But if you keep asking your characters "why?" you'll find that their motives run deep.
She is afraid because she doesn't want to return to the life of servitude she had before, but she knows no other way of living. She doesn't want to return to that life because she has experienced adventure and freedom and likes it.
He wants to protect her because he feels responsible. He feels responsible because he thinks that without his help, she won't survive.
She needs to exact revenge because she thinks she was wrongly murdered. She was murdered because she was evil and power-hungry.
Always ask "why?" and your characters will become more complex. They'll become living, breathing humans (or otherwise) with strong motives.