Ask the Editor: Character Motive

by Elisabeth Kauffman
published in Writing

Dear Editor,

I am revising my first novel, which is also the first novel in a speculative historical fiction trilogy. It has been a great joy, and I’m working on book two, so I feel pretty confident that I want to move this thing forward and that it’s worth the effort of revising.

I’m having some trouble with character development. It seems to me that my characters are very clear and have very specific goals, but I’m finding that my alpha readers do not feel the same way! I’m working on revising the chapters to have the characters do things like naming what they want, and shaping particular scenes to provide opportunities for characters to show their characteristics, but I feel stuck between ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘please tell me what this character’s motivations are’. Any suggestions for a newbie revisionist working on their first round of feedback?

Thank you thank you!

First Time Author, Long Time Reader


It’s difficult for you the writer to see where your characters’ goals—and more importantly the motive for attaining those goals—may be unclear, because you’ve lived with them, in them, and they in you. You know where the story started and where it’s going, so the details tend to fill themselves in. That’s why alpha and beta readers are so important. They help us uncover the areas in our storytelling where the reader needs more clarity. Brava to you for getting the feedback you need to strengthen your story. So now, how do you balance your readers’ need for information with the desire to avoid info-dumping or being too on-the-nose with your characters?

Motive is such an important tool for connecting readers to your characters. It tells us so much about them: who they are, what their flaws are, why they do what they do, and whether the reader is likely to sympathize with them.

Most new writers run into problems because they wait too late to tell the reader what their character is striving for, what is driving them through the story. You’ve got to get your characters’ motives out into the open as soon as possible. If you don’t tell your readers what a character’s motive is, they will pick the most obvious motive based on their understanding of the story so far, which may not necessarily be correct, and then proceed to be confused when the character’s actions don’t line up with the perceived motive.

But how do you do this without seeming like you’re doing it?

Details, details, details

The key to your question lies in sharing details that relate to character motive, lots of them, as early and as often as possible. Throughout chapter two of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when we first meet Harry, J.K. Rowling gives us details that telegraph what Harry wants to us, without being overly explicit.

  • He lives with his aunt and uncle.
  • The house is filled with pictures of Dudley, his cousin, but none of Harry even though they were raised together.
  • His parents are dead, but he’s not allowed to ask questions about them.
  • He sleeps in the cupboard, doesn’t have a room of his own.
  • He always gets sent to Mrs. Figg’s house, which he hates, instead of being brought on family outings.
  • And even when he is brought along, something happens to remind him that he’s different, and different is bad.
  • He dreamed that some unknown relative had come to take him away.

All of these details, given to us right away, lead us to understand who Harry is and infer what it is that he wants: to belong, to have a family. And that motive leads him to believe he’s a wizard when Hagrid tells him so, to want to go to Hogwarts when the opportunity presents itself, to eventually discover more about his family, and to find a place where he belongs.

Action, dialogue, and inner thought reveal character motive

If you study that chapter—or one by whomever your favorite author is—you’ll find the details of character motive reveal themselves most obviously through action, and in conversations between characters. What a character does and/or says should tell us what they want, even if they don’t know what it is yet. (pro tip: if you think your writing does this but your readers tell you they’re still confused, you may need to be more explicit).

Depending on your choice of narrative voice, you also have the opportunity to dive deep inside a character’s mind and show us their innermost thoughts. What portions of the inner dialogue reveals what they want? How can you make that apparent to the reader? It’s a question of leaving bread crumbs for the reader to pile together into understanding.

You’re sharing the relevant details that will lead us in the direction you want us to go, following your character all the way down the path of your story. Be selective in the bread crumbs you choose; they shape the path. If a detail confuses the reader and you don’t mean for it to, get rid of it.

When in doubt, choose clarity

Sometimes, despite all your best efforts at subtlety, you have to hit us over the head with character motive, especially when you’re working with complex characters and the complicated circumstances they find themselves in. Characters’ goals change as the story progresses, too, as they and the reader gather more information, and as events take place that either help or hinder your character in achieving their goal.

You have to find the balance between showing us where your characters want to go, where they believe they are going, and where they are going to end up. Those ideas may be complementary, or they may be in direct conflict with one another, threatening to pull your character apart. Whatever the case, let your goal be clarity. There’s no reason to try to hide what your characters are thinking, what drives them, what their dreams are, what their most primal needs and fears are. That’s what helps your reader connect to them.

The more you write, and the more you receive feedback on your writing, the better you will get at intuiting what the reader needs to know in order to connect with a character and the path the character is on.

It’s a balancing act. It’s a practice. It’s about trying something, getting it wrong, and trying again until you find the magic place where what the story requires and what the reader requires meet. Keep at it. One page at a time.

How to “Ask the Editor”

Send your questions to Limit yourself to a few paragraphs to introduce yourself and the problem at hand. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. And keep an eye out for opportunities to send in longer submissions for critique.

Elisabeth Kauffman is a freelance editor in California. Her favorite genres are YA fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. She regularly obsesses over board games, Doctor Who, and Harry Potter. Come share your ideas with her on Facebook and Twitter and on the web at Also, check out her author website and her author page on Facebook.

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