We talk a lot about motivation, in rather general terms. We ask what the characters want most and what they’re willing to do to obtain it. As an overview, that’s a good place to start.
Motivation is sometimes defined as the overall quest. Motives are more intimate, secrets held closely by the characters.
Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring. Every person in the Fellowship is motivated by the need to keep the One Ring from falling into Sauron’s hands. This is the acknowledged reason for their accompanying Frodo and is the core plot point around which the story unfolds.
Yet they each have secret thoughts and desires, some of which are subconscious. Some have plans that are left unspoken.
Each member of the Fellowship has personal reasons for volunteering to accompany Frodo to Mordor. In the end, those secret motives are the undoing of some and the making of others.
Samwise is a loyal friend who refuses to leave Frodo’s side. Fear that Frodo will need him forces him to insist on being included. Pippin and Merry have similar but different reasons—they don’t want to be left out if Frodo and Sam are going to have an adventure. Their motives are simple at the outset but become more complicated as their stories diverge and unfold. Pippin and Merry are separated from Frodo and Sam at Amon Hen. In the process, these four young hobbits lose their youthful naiveté and become leaders, warriors to be counted on when the going is rough.
Boromir desires the ring for what he believes is a noble purpose, and intends to take it to Minas Tirith. This is evident at the beginning of the Council of Elrond, but he soon sees he won’t achieve his overall goal unless he agrees to join the quest to destroy it. He tells himself he wants it so he can preserve Gondor. In reality, he knows the power of the ring and believes that by his possessing it, Gondor will return to its former glory and be safe forever. He will rule the world with a just hand. His true motive is a quest for personal power.
When we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled—a quest of some sort. For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal, but he/she also must have secret, underlying motives not specifically stated at the outset. Each of the supporting character’s involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.
The Antagonist must also have motives both stated and unstated. He/she has a deep desire to thwart the protagonist, but there are reasons for this, a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad-guy and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.
Motivation is a major current in the inferential layer of the story. The hints of backstory, combined with clues, information delivered via conversation, should show each character as an individual. They must have underlying personal reasons that have nothing to do with acquiring the object or achieving the goal. These secret motives may or may not be important enough to be stated.
The hints and clues can be divulged both in conversation with the character in question or about them. Either way, snippets of dialogue are a useful tool for offering the protagonist and the reader information as needed.
No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason, or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse.
The fundamental laws of physics, the rules that govern the universe are in force here: Nothing that occurs happens for no reason whatsoever. There is always a causative factor. Without a cause, there is no effect. Cause is motivation. Effect becomes cause, which becomes motivation. Motivation is a chain reaction of cause and effect, which becomes the story.
And it’s all traceable back to the character’s first idea, their first secret desire to do or have something.
When we look at things this way, we see that motivation must be a multilayered thing if we are to have well-rounded characters, people the reader can believe in.
Characters that feel too shallow sometimes lack sufficient personal motivations for buying into the larger quest. If we have supplied each character with a secret backstory, those hinted-at motives can sometimes push the story into newer, more original waters.
And isn’t that what we readers are looking for? We read because we are searching for a story that feels new, offers us a fresh view of the world through the characters’ eyes.