Creating character motivation and plot

So every time I feel stuck for plot I peruse Pinterest for motivation. One thing I kept seeing over and over was this phrase:

Stack the deck against your characters, then stack it even higher.”

It is something I’ve tried to keep in mind every time I write and I feel like my story line is getting stale. What else can I stack against them? This is where your character’s motivation is key. If they don’t have proper motivation, then they will lose their will to achieve their goal if you stack the cards too high. You don’t want to stack it so high they cannot overcome it, but you want to stack it high enough to challenge them, and force them to adapt and change.

Character motivation is something I struggle with. That’s a hard thing for me to admit as a writer. Usually my main character/protagonist’s motivations are clear, but my antagonist needs help. I tend to write very flat villains and it’s something I’m aware of and actively working to change. I try to focus on their motivations, what makes them tick, what makes them feel the way that they feel, what would drive them to do horrible things?

Antagonists and circumstances drive the plot. If there was nothing stopping the protagonist it would be a very short book. They would immediately achieve their goal and no one really wants to read that story.

Let’s look at my main character from Secrets & Swords.

Roguelyn: she comes from a privileged place as a Duke’s daughter, but being such, she also has certain constraints on her. She isn’t allowed to join the army or fight. So when her father is captured by the enemy she has to break tradition, risk getting killed or worse, and then find a way to get to her father. If she didn’t have the added dangers of the war or men trying to take advantage of her, and her best friend betraying her then she wouldn’t have had enough motivation to leave and find her father. But once she is finally on that path, if she just walked into Gadel and asked about her father and they gave him to her then the book would be over in a few chapters. So I had to up the ante. I threw obstacle after obstacle at her and her will to save her father stayed strong. Her will to right wrongs also began to develop and soon she discovers that she not only wants to save her father but her country.

A character learning and changing is key. Without stacking the deck, the character would not be forced to change.

So how do we stack the deck? Well, that’s something us authors take days and hours to do. There is no easy answer but there are plenty of ways to move your plot forward and force your characters to adapt and change. Have them do something they wouldn’t normally do, have them endure the worse case scenario, have them lose someone close to them, take something essential away….the list goes on.

This is also something to keep in mind with character creation: does your character have enough depth? Try forcing them into a corner. If they can’t think their way out of it then they need more motivation, more depth.

This is where my psychology degree comes in handy. People react for a few specific reasons, or motivations. We react to things out of fear, manipulation, frustration/anger, or getting a need met. So our characters are either trying to fulfill a need (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, water, shelter, sex, belonging…) in some way (could be adaptive or mal-adaptive), or perhaps they are reacting out of fear, or reacting to try to get something (could be selfish, could not), or reacting out of anger and frustration. Oh man, I could talk about character motivations all day. And maybe I will in another post. But basically you need to identify who your character is, how you want them to change, then what things will force them to change, and how they will react.


People are complicated and yet simple. You can think of it like genres and sub-genres. There are only a limited number of main genres, but myriads of sub-genres within those genres. You identify the main genre first and then narrow it down. And multiple sub-genres could apply to the same work. A person is like that. We are all quantifiable in terms of creating and writing a character, but it takes work and practice. The characters you write in the beginning will not be the same as those you write in twenty years or even those you write after copious editing. Nothing will. That’s the beauty of writing, you can change it.

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