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Motivation and characterisation.

Welcome to 2012. During the holiday season I have been looking over my own manuscripts and delving into the motivation driving my characters.

I believe as fantasy authors, we need realistic motivation to bring our characters to life. Of course, this meant looking further than my own understanding. I have discovered that psychologists believe an early incident in life imprints on a character and can cause reaction and behavioral nuances much later in life. There are articles that describe how the timing of the incident can affect later motivation. The link is below. Following the ‘hierarchy of needs’ from Abraham Maslow, we find there are five classes of motivation. In very simplified terms, we as fantasy authors should find them useful. This translates to meaning…

Wants and desires can influence behavior. Only unsatisfied needs are associated with motivating the character. Satisfaction doesn’t.

Needs can be ordered in rank of importance from basic to complex. For example the need for food, shelter, security, love, to the need for acceptance, understanding and self esteem, achievement and finally self actualization.

Advancing to the next level will not occur until the character’s more basic needs have been satisfied.

Individuality As the character meets the needs at the basic level, moves up toward more complex needs and meets them, he will show more psychological health, humanness and individuality.

So where do our hero/villains/characters find their motivations? What has caused them to become determined and motivated; to partake in their quests? Are they behaving consistently, relative to their background?

Apparently there is a list of 16 needs, or basic desires that guide most human behavior, as listed by Professor Steven Reiss. Click here to see the whole list online. 

Acceptance, the need for approval

Curiosity, the need to learn

Eating, the need for food

Family, the need to raise children

Honor, the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one’s clan/ethnic group

Idealism, the need for social justice

Independence, the need for individuality

Order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments

Physical activity, the need for exercise

Power, the need for influence of will

Romance, the need for sex

Saving, the need to collect

Social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships)

Social status, the need for social standing/importance

Tranquility, the need to be safe

Vengeance, the need to strike back/to win

The article there is an interesting read. Hmm… Can’t say I am entirely comfortable with the information but then, I write fantasy, I don’t actually study human psychology. I think I feel more confident now though, that my characters are behaving within believable parameters.

Discussing this topic with a psychologist, I was urged to mention that motivation will come from the imprint that occurred earlier in life. Hence I am adding Ericson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. This table is well worth a look.

For a better look at a full version of the table online – click here.

Age Virtues Psycho Social Crisis Significant Relationship Existential Question
infant -18 months Hopes Trust vs. Mistrust Mother Can I Trust The World?
18 month-3 years Will Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt Parents Is It Ok To Be Me?
3-6 years Purpose Initiative vs. Guilt Family Is It Ok For Me To Do, Move and Act?
6-12 years Competence Industry vs. Inferiority Neighbors, School Can I Make It In The World Of People And Things?
12-19 years Fidelity Identity vs. Role Confusion Peers, Role Model Who Am I? What Can I Be?
19-40 years Love Intimacy vs. Isolation Friends, Partners Can I Love?
40-65 years Care Generativity vs. Stagnation Household, Workmates Can I Make My Life Count?
65-and on Wisdom Ego Integrity vs. Despair Mankind, My Kind Is It Ok To Have Been Me?


So, I guess without some incident to leave a mark on our character, the resulting reaction and motivation isn’t going to feel right. It all comes down to the basic rule, we as authors already know…and should adhere to. We need to know each of our characters’ backgrounds, so we can refer, if only in passing, to what happened to them and when it happened, to cause their behavior now.

At least that’s how I see it. What do you think?

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  1. A very interesting article for me as I was just wrestling with what I needed for a character or two and what perspective to handle it in. Having the list and chart is handy to understand the base human level needs and desires.

    Of course, as with everything, there should be a lot more mixing and blending of these items to make a believable and complex individual. That is what makes a true character is balancing two or even three of these, as each character is unique and wants more than just one thing.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • Hi Leif,
      The list is a starting point, or a helpful reference. True.. it’s the complex issues that our characters face in their past and present, that make them behave the way they do. It’s good to know what makes the human mind tick, so we can create character’s readers can identify with. I find the psychology of ‘why’ people do things almost as interesting as ‘what’ they do.
      Thanks for your comment. Glad you found the article helpful.

  2. Wendy L says:

    This is a valuable article to keep on hand. It is human phychology at our fingertips. If a character is lacking depth we can find a triger here and add motivation. My character (a ditz) could be enlivened if I play on her need for ‘Approval’ and “Social Contact’. I wonder what happened in her early life to make her feel so unfulfilled now. At 22 she’s facing ‘Itimacy versus Isolation’ so it’s natural ‘Friends & Partners’ are important to her and that she should be questiong ‘Can I Love?’

    Thank you Rosalie. I think you have provided us with the basic Character Template here. Now we just need to flesh it out.

  3. Great, concise article that made me mentally review my latest story. I’ve bookmarked it. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Cas Peace says:

    This article highlights the need for us, as writers, to realize how profound the characters we create really should be. It’s not enough simply to say that character A behaves or thinks in a certain way – we have to know WHY they do, and if we want our readers to connect and empathize with our characters, we also have to show, or at least give hints to, the reasons behind their actions.
    Delving into my characters’ natures and creating their pasts was one of the joys I found in writing my Artesan series. Both my main characters are deeply driven – Taran by his desire to realize his potential and thus repudiate his father’s low opinion of him, and Sullyan by her deep-rooted need to belong, spawned by being abandoned when she was young. Such desires, along with others that develop as a character grows, are what make fantasy worlds real for the reader.
    Great blog post, Rosalie – thanks for putting it “out there”!

  5. Thanks Edith and Cas,
    Glad you found the information helpful. It is fun to look into your character’s background. I mean…to create their background! 🙂 What power we have as authors. The responsibility is awesome!

  6. this is a great post! as a therapist, i had looked into the various motivation theories out there, and came across this list of 16 while doing so. but i argue in my writer’s guide (available for free on my website for signing up for my newsletter) that there are really only THREE. i’d be curious what you think about it!

    • Jeannie, I love your blog.. I think your therapy sessions for characters is a marvellous idea. LOL. What a great way to check for great character development.
      ( I tried to sign up for your newsletter but my virus filters had a problem. )
      I couldn’t check which three motivations you have mentioned but I know Deci and Ryan mention three, Competence, Relatedness and autonomy.
      Are they the same three you mention in your newsletter? Or do you have others?

  7. How about redemption or successful entry into the afterlife, especially in fantasy. In real life people, as they get older, turn toward more religious behaviors in order to decrease the chance of a horrible afterlife, or entry into a worthy afterlife. I was just watching a TV series that dealt with fantasy in which every person, upon death, goes to a horrible pit. Good or bad, they both end up there. I was thinking what was the point in that world of taking the side of good when the “reward” really sucked. In ancient Greece they believed that the afterlife was a world of dismal existence. No wonder in reading real Greek history a pattern of betrayal, of being only in it for oneself, appears over and over. So I feel that religion and the promised reward punishment of the afterlife can be a powerful motivation.

    • Doug, The Greeks had some good ideas, but if they believed the afterlife was a dismal existence.. well.. that sucks!! What a depressing thought.
      I am glad we have more positive outlooks these days!! 🙂 I think your idea of successful entry to the afterlife could be a strong motivation.
      It’s a great idea to consider. Thanks for sharing.

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