For the longest time, I struggled with strong character motivation. Still do, actually. Unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise, I tend to write reactive characters to whom shit happens — who just sort of blunder from one encounter to another, maybe having an emotion or two about it, but with no all-consuming wants of their own. It’s an instinct I still have to actively fight, even though I know how weak it is writing-wise.
It didn’t click with me until I started examining the stories I loved from the inside, and realized all the best characters have a driving need that moves them forward — and then story circumstances that move them further and further from those goals.
Since I’m a sci-fi / fantasy buff and I love to cite movie examples, let’s go with one of the nerd classics: Star Wars. (I thought about aiming for some literary credibility by busting out, I don’t know, Silas Marner or The Brothers Karamazov or something, but come on, we both know I’d be faking it.)
- Luke Skywalker wants to get away from his dead-end life on Tattooine. He finds out about Princess Leia, and wants to find out who she is and help her (goals).
- Hoping to join the Imperial academy (goal), Luke gets frustrated by his uncle, who refuses to let him off the farm (setback). He seeks out Obi-Wan to find out more about Leia (goal) but gets waylaid by Sand People (setback).
- Later, he manages to get off Tattoine, although it costs him the only family he has left (setback, which then leads to another goal).
- Now Luke also wants to become a Jedi, and rescue the princess. (goal)
- He makes a little progress on the whole Jedi thing, but then loses his master when Obi-Wan gets killed by Vader (setback). The Jedi goal won’t get picked up again until the second movie, and won’t be fulfilled until the third.
- Luke rescues the princess, presumably with romance in mind (goal), but Han breezily cockblocks him (setback). Which turns out to be fortunate for everyone involved, as it prevents Darth Vader from having flipper grandchildren.
- Having rescued Leia, Luke gets caught up in the Rebellion and the attack on the Death Star… (goal)
- ….but his new best buddy Han wants nothing to do with it (setback).
The final battle is then one setback after another, as Luke watches his buddies botch their attack runs and get picked off like flies. But, finally, he gets the job done. The Death Star is destroyed (only there’s a second one), Han gets his reward (but no longer seems to care that much), Luke gets the girl (only not really), and everyone is happy but Grand Moff Tarkin and those dead contractors.
This is a pretty basic rundown of Luke’s character arc, which I’m sure has been combed over in painstaking detail by more devoted nerds than myself. The point is, Luke, even though he’s frequently thought of as a whiny kid who just sort of bumbles around, he actually has very clear goals.
You can graph Han Solo much the same way. His basic objective is “get paid,” a goal so beleaguered by setbacks that he begins to question it (“no reward is worth this”). Obi-Wan has more elusive and far-reaching goals, some of which transcend his own death — which, from a story perspective, is pretty cool.
On the other hand, Star Wars does have a character who blunders through the story being batted around by life, who just reacts to things as they come along: C-3PO. Does he make good comic relief? Sure. Would he make a good protagonist? Hell no.
The same goes for Chewie. Okay, calm down, I love Chewie as much as the next Star Wars dweeb, but what’s Chewie’s motivation? It’s kinda Han’s motivation. Follow Han around, collect a paycheck. He’s a good supporting character, but on his own, he doesn’t have much going for him.
Good characters want things. They want things badly — and they frequently don’t get them, until the end of the story. Or, when they do get them, they become gateways to greater, more troublesome motivations. If you want a strong protagonist, you should be able to break down their goal in one succinct sentence. Harry Potter wants to survive (and later defeat) the machinations of Voldemort. Frodo wants to get the Ring to Mount Doom. Roland wants to get to the Dark Tower. Indiana Jones wants to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. And so on. (Raiders of the Lost Ark is actually a really interesting example, because the hero basically never gets what he wants, which is the Ark in a museum. He loses out at every turn, right through the ending, but the story is compelling anyway because he wants it so damn bad.)
So if you have a story that seems to be flailing around, take a good look at your main character. Much of the time, a directionless story points straight back to a directionless protagonist. Do they have an all-consuming goal that’s constantly moving them forward? If not, you’d better give them one, because an indecisive, noodly protagonist will erode reader sympathy like sulfuric acid. If your characters don’t invest in something emotionally, how do you expect your readers to invested emotionally in your story? It’s simple: they won’t.
Make them want it.