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Character Motivation

A character’s motivation is the reason behind their actions. This could refer to specific or general actions.

Well-written characters have a motivation behind everything they do, in the same way, that people in the real world do. When considering a character’s motivation, it helps to look at what one knows about their childhood, beliefs, friendships, and goals. Since the 1800s, characterization, and motivation have become more important in novels, short stories, plays, and poems than they ever were before. In some stories, readers will find that the entire narrative is determined by a character’s motivations rather than the plotline.

Motivation pronunciation: moh-tee-vay-shun

Character Motivation definition and examples


Definition of Motivation

There are many different ways a character might be motivated. Their choices might be determined by their love for their family, their desire to make money, their religious beliefs, career goals, and more. There are two broader categories of motivations. They are explained in more detail below but are concerned with physical rewards and internal rewards. 


Types of Motivation 

  • Intrinsic: this kind of motivation is driven by internal rewards. For example, knowledge, peace, happiness. A character might quit their job in order to find the latter. 
  • Extrinsic: this kind of motivation is driven by physical rewards. For example, money and power. A character might commit a crime to achieve either. 


Examples of Character Motivation in Literature 

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 

In The Catcher in the Rye, readers will meet and learn about a young man named Holden Caulfield. As the narrator of the novel, Holden continually shares information about himself and how he views the world. His attitudes towards life, adults, responsibilities, and social structures are pronounced. Here are a few famous lines from The Catcher in the Rye in which Holden alludes to the title: 

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day.

He dislikes the adult world and continually describes how “phony” and fake it seems to him. It makes him angry and inspires him to act out. At the beginning of the novel, he’s expelled from yet another prep school. Throughout the rest of the novel, his actions are motivated by his desire to break out of the box he was raised in and find a real experience, something that doesn’t feel fake.


Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

In Macbeth, a tragedy about the dangers of greed and the quest for power, William Shakespeare characterizes Macbeth through his dialogue and actions. Starting out the play in a position of power, Macbeth (egged on by his wife) is unsatisfied with his lot in life. Despite the warnings he receives, he decides to kill the king with the hope of taking his place. Here are a few lines from the play:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. […]

In this famous speech (the lines of which come from a very famous soliloquy), Macbeth looks out over his life and contemplates his future. It is featured in Act V Scene 5 of the play at the time in which Malcolm and Macduff are leading troops to Macbeth’s castle. He delivers the soliloquy in response to the news that his wife, Lady Macbeth, has died. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde 

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, readers learn about the title character and the two forces that drive him—youth and beauty. He trades his soul for a life of pleasure and eternal youth, something that becomes clearer was a terrible decision as the novel progresses. Here are a few lines from the novel: 

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Use Motivation? 

Writers use motivation in order to make their characters as realistic as possible. It’s important for them to have a full understanding of who their character is and why they do what they do. Without those things, readers aren’t going to find the character’s actions believable or even interesting. It is necessary to the creation of a well-rounded and empathetic character. But, it should be noted, in some instances, such as when a crime has been committed, or someone has engaged in another act of cruelty, a lack of motivation can be equally interesting. It could leave the reader guessing in regard to what kind of person could commit murder/rob a bank,/steal a car. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Anti Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
  • Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.


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