Motivation (or Why Did You Do That???)

“Motive: A need or desire that causes a person to act…implies an emotion operating on will and causing action” – – taken from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


dreamstime_6634032Sometimes characters have a way of running off with our story lines. Sometimes this is a really good thing. Other times, not so much. When this happens we, the author, often wind up in unexpected places in which we have to figure out new twists or endings to stories.

For this post, I wanted to focus on why people – and likewise, characters – do the things they do. What motivates various behaviors and what are the functions of the behavior?

As an educational psychologist, I spend A LOT of time looking at motivation and behavior. Most of the research in this area focuses in the part of psychology known as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This school of thought believes that ALL behavior occurs as a result of one of many of these reasons (or functions):

  • Escape (what am I trying to avoid or get rid of)
  • Get (what do I want, or what am I seeking)
  • Protest (What do I need to object to)

As I analyze the behavior of some of my more difficult students, I can tell you that almost all behavior absolutely relates to the functions listed above. True, there internal things that trigger behavior as well – but, the majority of things can be framed in terms of these three functions.

Okay – let’s relate this back to writing. Why is any of this important?

I feel that as an author I need to know why my characters do the things they do? If I have them, say, enter into an unexpected intimate relationship, what motivated it – what “function” did the initiation of that relationship serve. When I block out story lines, I am always examining the motivation.

Let me give you another example – in my current story I kill off a central character within the first 50 pages. Why – motivation for what follows. This death provides the catalyst necessary for the main character to undergo major change – something vital for the entire story. When I originally blocked out the story, I did not have this death scene. I found the changes in the MC not as believable. I hadn’t given enough of a reason for the changes that took place and as a reader I did not believe anything that happened. I am sure you have read stories where this has happened. When I went back and thought about what would force her to change her behavior as significantly as I needed it to change and what function would the new behaviors serve, I realized that only an event of this magnitude would work – so I created something BIG to serve as a catalyst.

In another story I am hoping to start next month, I outlined the major plot point in terms of the driving forces, or functions, of the main characters’ actions. I specifically looked at the goal each character was trying to achieve with one another.

For me, this is a necessary part of the process.

Try this: read one of the stories that you are dissatisfied with in some way (be honest, we all have at least one story like this). Look at it in terms of the motivation behind your characters’ actions – or the function the characters’ behaviors serve. Often times when I do this, I am able to figure out what bugs me about my storyline – what isn’t believable. For me, the problems in the story almost always deal with the authenticity of character voice or character behavior. (Check this out for more on character voice).

Let me know how it goes…and happy writing.


Author: Christine Fonseca

Critically acclaimed author of edgy YA fiction, psych thrillers, and nonfiction self-help books. Drinker of skinny vanilla lattes. Lover of life. Titles include Lacrimosa, Transcend (both for YA) and The Girl Guide (non fiction for teen girls)

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