Shelley Widhalm

What Motivates Character

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

Identifying character motivation can be compared to that moment before a dandelion puff bursts apart.

It’s that inner drive that keeps all the white fuzz attached to the seed. Hundreds of tiny ray flowers forming the white fuzz fuse around the central column of the pistil.

I like to think of motivation as that fuse of identity. It’s what a story or novel’s main character has to have above all else, the burning, constant desire that drives all of her actions.

This driving need informs everything else about her. Her need helps determine the story goal, or what she wants as her outcome – to find, preserve, replace, create or do something to better things for herself, her family and friends, or the world.

If she tries to fill the need without knowing what she requires, she will feel empty. She will fail to recognize what she has at stake in the story’s central conflict and not know what she has to win or lose.

The self-aware character will learn the difference between her need and what she thinks she wants.

For instance, my character Kate in “The Fire Painter” (I changed the title from “Dropping Colors”) thinks she needs to replace the things she lost from an apartment fire. This is her initial driving need, but it’s actually a want that ends up damaging her.

What she needs is the sense of security she had from those things, something she will get from her dog, Flame, her friends and her family. She will realize that things don’t matter, but the people in your life do.

Characters like Kate aren’t necessarily going to get what they want, but they will get their needs met – either how they originally planned or in an entirely unexpected way – by the story’s resolution, unless the story has a sequel or an open ending.

The needs are what characters have to have to be safe, secure and fulfilled in their worlds.

When writing, think of these needs and how they determine how your character will react to the major events in the story. Her motivation will fuel her intentions in every scene and help give purpose to her actions. She will transform as a result and get what she needs.

This is her inner journey or character arc.

See Zoey’s blog, Zoey’s Paw, at

  1. Wow! Love the ‘dandelion’ imagery and the phrase “fuse of identity”. This one works as a life lesson, as well as a writing lesson. Bravo.

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