Character Goals vs. Motives: What are They, How Do They Work, and Why Do You Need Them?

Do your characters feel a little flat?

Ever feel unconfident about how fleshed out they feel?

Not really sure how to give them more dimension?

Well, today I’m going to talk about character goals and motives!

I’ll define character goals vs. motives, talk about what those things mean, and give examples of how to use them.

So without further ado, let’s talk about it.

Character Goal

To start, let’s differentiate between a character goal and character motive.

Here’s Merriam-Webster definition of “goal” and “motive:”

Goal:

“something that you are trying to do or achieve”

Motive:

“a reason for doing something”

I’ll talk more about “motive” next, but for now, let’s focus on “goal.”

It is the thing that the character is trying to accomplish throughout the story.

It’s how they want their situation to end.

You want your characters to have something to achieve or gain by the end.

If your story is a horror, it might be surviving.

If it’s a romance, it might be having a romantic relationship.

It’s whatever your story calls for and how you want to tell it.

Also, goals can change throughout the story, and I’d actually encourage the goal to change in some cases.

It can be a way to show character growth!

If we go back to the bakery story we’ve talked about from the past few weeks, we can look at the characters’ goals there.

Here’s a quick summary of the bakery story, if you’re unaware:

A thief stops at a bakery one day (after failing another scam), and tries one of the tastiest muffins they’ve ever had. The thief remembers their childhood dream of opening a bakery and asks the baker for the recipe.

After the baker refuses, the thief plans on stealing the recipe. While planning the heist and dropping by the bakery every day to eat the tasty muffins, the baker offers to teach them how to bake some of their other recipes.

The baker and thief become fast friends, and in the end, as the thief has broken in and is hesitating to steal the secret muffin recipe, the baker catches the thief.

They understand their friend’s situation, forgives them, and they go on as best friends and work together forever.

The end.

What is a Plot, How is it different from a Story and Summary, and How the Heck Do You Structure Any of That?!

The thief’s goal in this story is to steal the muffin recipe for their childhood dream of opening a bakery.

And by the end, their goal is technically still the same, it’s just tweaked a bit.

They still got to work in a bakery, but now they’re doing it with their best friend.

And they didn’t even have to steal or scam to achieve this goal.

This shows that, even if it took a while, they grew and changed from the original character at the beginning.

You want your characters to have goals to help move the story forward.

Or at least, that’s part of the formula.

Goals are usually followed closely by motives.

So let’s talk about those.

Character Motive

So motive, as we’ve seen defined above, is “a reason for doing something.”

If a “goal” is something to accomplish, then “motive” is the reason there’s a desire for that goal to be accomplished.

It’s a “why” to the goal.

This is when you want to start asking your characters why they want something.

Understanding their “why” gives them more dimension, and makes them more interesting to read (and write).

You start to understand why they’re doing things the way they do, making the writing process much more smooth.

Is your character a knight who wants to save the princess? Why?

Is it so they can marry the princess, gaining wealth and power?

Is it because the knight has known the princess since they were children?

Answering these questions is important.

Because it allows you to learn the steps you need to take to help reach your character’s goals.

It’s almost like drawing a treasure map.

The goal is the “x” on the map, and motive is the lines leading to it.

As another example, let’s go back to that baker story again.

So the thief remembers that they’ve always dreamed of opening a bakery of their own, and decides to steal this incredible muffin recipe to put towards that dream.

Now, what would motivate the thief to steal to achieve this dream?

Maybe it’s because that dream came from their deceased grandmother, and how they promised to open a bakery together someday.

But after that grandmother passed, they had forgotten that dream until today.

Now, they want to honor that wish.

It also helps that the thief hates their life, and wants something better.

Even if the method to improving their situation is a bit . . . misguided.

The point is, we can better understand the thief and how they operate by knowing their reason for stealing the muffin recipe.

And this is how we should look at our characters.

Identify what they want and why they want it.

Once you have a certain grasp on how and why they operate, you can make them feel more alive and dimensional.

Make them feel more human.

So maybe go out and try filling in your character bios with details on goals and motives.

I’m sure your characters (and writing!) will appreciate it.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

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