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  • Writer's pictureTina Radcliffe

The Why of Motivation

Updated: Jun 9, 2018

External motivation is probably the most interesting, complex and fun part of the GMC of fiction. Internal motivation, on the other hand, can be one of the most challenging issues for those of us who are not therapists or clinical psychologists by trade and do not have a copy of DSM-5 at hand.

Let's start with a fast review of all the pieces of GMC. Every writer should have a battered, highlighted and tabbed copy of Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction, on their desk or a pristine copy in their Kindle.

This lovely chart will be filled out for your hero, heroine and if you have one, the villain as well. The beauty of this is that it works hand-in-hand with Michael Hauge's Six Stage Story Structure. External is the outer journey. Internal is the inner journey.

Back to basics.

Goal = What (what they want)

Motivation = Why (why they want it)

Conflict = The Why Not (what stands in their way)

It doesn't get any simpler than this for a beginning writer. This GMC would go in the EXTERNAL column because if you can see it, hear it, taste it or touch it, (per Dixon) the GMC is external.

Back to WHY. The answer to why is always....BECAUSE.

Why does your hero or heroine want a particular EXTERNAL goal? Decide the answer to 'because' and then throw obstacles in their way. This gives you GMC.

WHY? The internal motivation is as complex as an Annie Lennox video. The why of internal motivation is our wound. Hauge describes wounds as something the character already suffered when the story begins. An unhealed source of continuing pain.

Decide your hero or heroine's wound and you have the motivation for their goal. Of course, the conflict is that you make them face their pain. Always! The pain of the wound must be so strong that the character will do anything to avoid that pain again.

Our job as a writer is to show that motivation so clearly that the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief to follow your character and root for them, feel their pain and keep turning the pages. Laying the groundwork for the motivation will help us justify the character's actions later in the story.

Example: Farmer Joe Smith lost his wife and newborn in childbirth. He never wants to go through that again. In fact, he avoids it all cost and becomes a hermit. Of course, he falls in love with a pregnant widow stuck on his ranch during a blizzard. Or for a contemporary novel ..oops the birth control didn't work. Suddenly the marriage is in trouble because someone is facing their biggest fears.

This is very simplistic. As we gain experience as a writer the more complex our internal conflict can and will become.

Which bring us to another facet of motivation!

Characters acting in character.

There is nothing more annoying than a character who does not act in character. I'm as guilty of this as the next writer. Getting into our character's heads and really becoming them will prevent this.

When we read a book we become the hero and/or the heroine. A good writer has established such a fine foundation of GMC that we know these people. We know Harry Potter. We know Scarlett O'Hara.

So when these characters do things that we know in our heart they would never do, because they have become real to us, we have no choice but to stop reading. The writer has broken the bond of trust.

This is why a good Beta reader, critique partner or editor is so valuable.

The moral of this lesson? Don't annoy your readers.

The final aspect of motivation is Stupid Heroine Syndrome. Sometimes this is called Too Stupid To Live.

This is very simple to diagnose. The character does something that defies logic and common sense. It's even worse when both the hero and heroine are TSTL. The underlying issue is there is no motivational rationale for their actions. And TSTL is not really a very heroic thing is it?


1. The heroine hears a burglar in the basement and goes down with only a flashlight and doesn't call 9-1-1.

2. The damsel who agrees to a deathbed wish that is utterly ridiculous.

3. In the middle of machine gunfire with the bad guys, the heroine oogles the heroes biceps.

4. The hero and heroine are running for their lives through the jungle, cut and bruised and haven't showered in a week and they stop for what we shall call a "romantic encounter."

Stop it! Just stop it!

I hope this discussion of the WHY of Motivation was helpful.

*photo courtesy Ken Treloar Unsplash


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