Apr 16, 2010

M is the Motive

Motive in a mystery novel is obviously essential, we need to know why the killer was willing to risk everything to commit murder. The motive is usually the undoing of the murderer, once the protagonist detective figures out the motive, he can work out 'who done it'. But motive is not just for murderers. Motive is in every fiction character, or at least, it should be.

Motive drives every decision and every action for your characters. Why did the killer murder Old-man Hibbard? Stabbing him with scissors in the library no less? Did the man give the killer's new book a really bad review and suggested the pages be cut up for paper dolls or aeroplanes? There needs to be a motive, not just for the crime, but for the choice of tools and location. But what about non-murderous characters?

Why should our protagonist care enough to want to solve the crime? What is their motive? Perhaps they need to prove their own innocence, like in The Fugitive, or they need to protect the next possible victim, or maybe they're just addicted to adventure. There needs to be a strong enough reason for the protagonist to continue down a dangerous path, rather than just head home and turn on the telly.

This is true for all protagonists, no matter what type of journey they will be taking. Alice needed a motive to want to drink a suspicious liquid and shrink to fit through a tiny door, rather than just stay in the rabbit hole and wait to be rescued. Alice was curious. You can't have your character behave and then just explain the action later, you need to support the motive within the building of your character. We knew Alice was curious before she got to the door and the potentially poisonous drink. The author had built up our expectations so the only thing we would expect Alice to do is to move forward through the story.

Movement is the key to a good narrative, keep the characters moving forward through the narrative and you'll keep your reader moving through the book. For every character you should ask:
  • Why are they there?
  • What do they want most?
  • What is stopping them?
  • What are they prepared to do about it?
There are many motivators and people have different priorities for their life, so you need to choose the motive that best works for your narrative and make sure your character supports that motive (or you can build your character first and then work out what motivators best suit them). Here's a few motives:
  • Greed - character is usually seen following the money
  • Power/Fame - this character is all about control
  • Fear - possibly through paranoia or perhaps the threat is real
  • Protector - someone the character cares about is at risk
  • Revenge - driven by anger, bitterness
  • Passion - love is the motivator and perhaps it's unrequited or there is a love triangle
  • Blackmail - this character has a shady past they want to keep hidden
  • Shame - this character acts through a sense of being unworthy
  • Faith - even if it is misguided, it can be powerful enough to push a character
  • A Rush - wild and untamed, this character comes across as spoilt.
Once you know what your character's motive is, you can weave supporting suggestions throughout the text, little signs of the truth, so when all is revealed the reader will feel satisfied with the solution. Agatha Christie provides great examples of motive, for every crime there will be several suspects, all with different motives for wanting the victim dead.
Murder on the Orient Express - every passenger has a motive for murder!


  1. I love this post. I think most people get this in regards to their main character - but we have to remember that all our characters are motivated by something to do the things they do.

  2. It's good to keep this in mind, that in every scene, every character has a motive, a need, and a purpose. Thanks!

  3. Great post! :o) You're half way there :o))

  4. I love the insight on this post and the key of movement after we have developed the character! Fascinating~

  5. What a great comprehensive post. Do you teach this stuff anywhere?

  6. What a great post! Back in the day when I used to act, my favorite director used to tell us that in every moment of every play our character needed to have a desire for something and that every action we took, every word we said was to be made keeping that desire/motivation in mind. This post made me realize that I need to use that same advice in my writing. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for the comments!
    Alliterative Allomorph - I'm a high school teacher for English, but mostly I'm a study junkie. When I want to learn something I read read read on the subject - not much actual writing gets done ;-)
    Angie - Acting is a great learning background for writing! All your characters are standing around their page stage and need you to direct them and provide their motivation.