Character Motivation v. Goals v. Obstacles

by | September 3, 2019 |

One of the most basic aspects of any story is character motivation. In any given scene. Throughout the story.

Character Motivation

Character motivation is based on needs. The title image offers the possibilities. Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed this five-tier pyramid in 1943 in a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Basic Needs. The pyramid rests on basic needs. On the realist end of a basic-need story is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Unable to scrape out an existence in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, the Joad family moves to California. There things do not get better. Not all of them survive.

On the heroic end of a basic-need story is the thriller. It bases itself on a life-and-death situation. In the Jason Bourne trilogy, Bourne’s most basic need is to stay alive. And he is very good at it.

Self-Actualization. At the top of the pyramid are characters who are doing what they believe they were born to do. A real-life example might be Elvis. I understood him better when I learned that after a Vegas show, he would go backstage, sit at the piano and play gospel music with his fellow musicians. Another real-life example might be Jerry Seinfeld. He doesn’t need to lift another finger in life to survive or garner respect. Yet he continues to do stand-up. And produce and star in shows like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Elvis came on earth to make music and Seinfeld to do comedy. So that’s what they do.

Love and Belonging. The middle of the pyramid is where I, a romance writer, find central character motivation. My characters need intimacy, warmth, human connection. Along the way they might also have to fulfill basic physiological needs and/or command the respect of someone they admire.

Readers relate to a story when character motivation is recognizable and realistic.


Your character has desires. Her goals are the what. Her motivations are the why.

Basic Need. Your character needs to survive a snow storm so her goal is to find shelter.

Love and Belonging. She wants to find a mate so she puts on-line dating, speed-dating, blind-dating and all the rest on her ToDo list.

Self-Actualization. Her vision of herself as a Broadway star keeps her waiting tables so that she has the flexibility to dog audition after depressing audition.

Life being life, these needs do not necessarily arise in serial fashion. I just had an idea to open a story with a struggling actress who loses her rent-controlled apartment in NYC in the middle of winter. Now what? The possibilities are delightful. Does she need to move in with an ex for a day or two in order to get back on her feet?


Obstacles get in the way of achieving goals. I recently wrote a blog on Realistic Obstacles: Tips for Creating Them. I observed that they come in two types: interior and exterior.

Let’s say your character has dyslexia, an interior obstacle. He wants to understand his condition so that he can help others with it. This is his motivation, the why. His goal is to become a neurologist, the what.

An exterior obstacle might be the teacher or family member who says your dyslexic character is stupid and will never amount to anything.

So now we have three things on the table:

Motive: Do something good for the dyslexics of the world

Goal: Get a PhD in neuroscience

Obstacles: The dyslexia itself (MCATs are not easy to take!) and the haters who oppose rather than support the goal

Case In Point: A Story

My motive for writing this blog is a story I just read. I liked it but it bothered me for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. And I need this space to work out my puzzlement.

The story opens when the heroine gets the results of a home pregnancy test. She’s one-month pregnant from a one-night stand. And she has firmly not pursued a relationship with the man-of-the-one-night-stand. On the same day, she discovers her place of business will be shut down. The workmen she hired to bring her space up to building code cut too many corners, meaning she got cheated out of work she paid for. And now how is she going to survive if her business is shut down, if only temporarily?

Really good. Throw what you can at your heroine.

She, furthermore, had a very bad childhood, has no relationship with her mother and endured an abusive marriage from which she escaped.

Examining the Story

Her motivation is clear. She wants to preserve, at all costs, her good relationships with the one family who treated her well in her life. The mother is like a surrogate mother. The daughter is one of her life-long best friends. And the son … well, turns out, he’s the father of her child. When he discovers she’s pregnant and then asks her to marry him, she turns him down.

Why? In her experience when a marriage breaks down (as it will), people choose sides. If she marries the father of her child, she will lose his family and all her good relationships with them when the marriage ends.

That sounds realistic from her point of view. I’m on board.

Her goal is less clear. The only goal, more or less unstated, I could identify is this: she wants her life to be the way it was, with her business open and herself free … of what? A relationship, inevitably going bad, that would interrupt her good relationships.

This goal – if goal it is – is less realistic. With a baby coming, her life can’t go back to the way it was. And unless she leaves town, she is going to have to have some new type of relationship with the baby’s aunt (her best friend) and the baby’s grandmother (her surrogate mother). Not to mention some kind of relationship with the Baby Daddy, who clearly wants to be in the picture.

Her obstacles? Sure, the shoddy workmen count as external obstacles that have prevented her from keeping her business open.

The only other obstacle I can detect is her belief that all marriages end badly and people thereafter choose sides. This belief is at the core of her motivation.

What Have I Learned?

I now see that my problem with the story lies in the fact that the motivation, the goal and the obstacles aren’t clearly delineated.

From this understanding I derive two writing maxims:

One. Do not conflate a motivation and an obstacle.

Two. Your character must have a positive goal. It should either be explicitly stated or implicit in the character’s actions. 

The current (not-quite-stated) goal of the story under review is this:  I want my life to be the way it was, which is (tenuously, IMO) related to: I refuse to marry the father of my child.

Such a negative quasi-goal does not carry the story forward. Many, in fact too many, conversations revolve around her explaining to herself, her Baby Daddy and her friends her problem with marriage. The story is mired in an examination of motivation.

Let’s try:

New Goal: I want to be the best mother I can to this child. In order to do this, I need to have the best relationships I can with both the father and his family. How do I go about this?

This goal, the what, is predicated on a new motivation, the why.

New Motivation: I want my baby’s childhood to be different than mine.

Same Obstacles: Exterior: The shoddy workmen remain. Interior: Her crippling belief about marriage is now distinct from her motivation.

This new motivation and the new goal are still based on maintaining good family relationships but now it’s about having a new good family relationship, namely one with her as-yet-unborn child.

The new motivation and goal will necessarily change all the conversations. Same for the trajectory of development of the love relationship which, as it is currently written, is a rather routine push/pull. She pushes, he pulls.

Final Thought

You can learn as much from stories that don’t work as from ones that do. This blog is nearly twice as long as my usual. It took some noodling through on my part to understand my disappointment in an otherwise potentially good story with engaging characters.

I hope my discussion helps you as you develop the character motivation, goals, and obstacles in your current story.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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