In a previous post, I discussed how what your character wants defines the goal of the story. (See May 6 What Does Your Character Want? Part 1.) The main character only exists because he wants something, which is summarized as “I want, therefore I am.”) The why the character wants this goal defines the motivation. Something within the character needs to be satisfied before, he believes, his life will be in balance/worth living/have meaning. This need can even be unacknowledged, yet if the goal isn’t driving the character to act, there would be no story. The author must always be conscious that the character could just walk away.
Something within prevents the character from meeting an obstacle and just turning away from overcoming it. This something is the motivation.
I believe the motivation develops from the character’s back story. Whatever might have happened in his past, he has made an uneasy peace to live with it. Yet, the unease flares up when the story begins. Michael Hauge calls this past event the “wound.” It prevents the character from being his fullest self. Until he achieves a true healing with the “wound,” his life will be incomplete.
When creating a character, one of the things I mull over for quite awhile is how the person grew up. I construct an incident that hurt him while teaching him a wrong message. Usually I pick this to occur from age ten through the early teens. Young enough to be powerless against the wrong, yet old enough to know it is wrong and remember it. Promises made to self or others are always good to create a driving force for this incident. Since I write historical romances, I can look at what was happening at the time to anchor my character more firmly within his world, although contemporary writers can do the same. They just don’t have to look as many years back.
This incident sets up the “wound” that must be addressed within the story. It provides the why of the character sticking around through the story. He can’t turn back. He made a promise, and as a honorable person, he keeps his promises, which adds to the conflict.
So think of what your character wants. No matter what it is (revenge, fame, a place on the school soccer team), but at the same time, think of why that goal is so important to him. That will give you a believable motivation. My critique group is always reminding each other that you can have a character do anything you want no matter how outlandish, but only if you motivated it first.
The what your character wants can’t be developed without the why.