How Your Protagonist’s Motivations Influence Your Story’s Themes

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

What does your protagonist want?

Yes, that may be a loaded question. But as a writer, you have good reason to remember it while crafting your protagonist. Your character’s motivations often evolve into her goal for the story, which then determines the direction of the plot. But did you know that the protagonist’s motivations also indicate some of the story’s literary themes?

Think of it as a chain reaction. Once you decide the protagonist’s motivations, you’ll know what she wants to achieve by The End. You’ll also discover which strengths and weaknesses will help or harm her on her journey, how her motivations will inform her decisions, the obstacles she’ll face, and what’s at stake. And once you’ve figured out those elements and begun writing, the story’s themes will naturally emerge. In other words, once you know the protagonist’s motivations, the rest of the story’s thematic pieces will fall into place.

Sounds daunting, right? Don’t worry. In this edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll go over four steps that can help you ensure your protagonist’s motivations will influence the story’s themes.

Step #1: Decide What Your Protagonist Wants and Why

A protagonist’s motivations are twofold: what and why. The what is the desire that the character longs for at the story’s beginning. Typically this desire is tangible and relatable, which will persuade the reader to believe the protagonist can achieve it and to connect with her on an emotional level.

The why unearths the meaning behind this desire. It digs into the character’s backstory and psyche to reveal the need that’s driving her want. (You can use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help you determine where your character’s motivations fall.) For example, a teenage boy may want to find new friends because his family moved to a new town, and he craves knowing he belongs somewhere. Or the heroine may want to trust a new romantic partner after being abused by another man, and she believes she deserves a healthy, loving relationship.

This layered approach to character motivations isn’t new to literature. Choose any book from your collection, and you’ll find what the protagonist wants and why they want it. Here are three different examples from books on my shelves:

  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry wants to feel like he belongs somewhere. He’s been raised by his uncaring relatives ever since his parents were killed, so he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a loving family.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward: Spensa wants to attend flight school and become a starfighter pilot, just like her father. It’s been her dream since she was little; and even though her father was branded a coward for deserting his team during his final mission, she’s determined to not let anyone stand in her way.
  • Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: The unnamed father wants to ensure his son’s survival. With winter on the way in their post-apocalyptic world and few trustworthy people out there, he feels compelled to do everything he can so his child can live.

So as you explore your protagonist’s motivations, take some time to answer these questions:

  1. What does the protagonist want?
  2. Is this motivation tangible or achievable, given the character’s circumstances and/or the story world? Why or why not?
  3. Is this motivation relatable? Will the reader understand and/or sympathize with the protagonist because of this motivation? Why or why not?
  4. Why does the protagonist want this goal? What need is driving this yet-to-be-fulfilled desire?
  5. What has transpired in the protagonist’s life and led to the lack of fulfillment of this need?

A person’s desires and needs aren’t cut-and-dried. Rather, they’re complex because of that person’s unique blend of values, dreams, attitude, and personal history. So by considering your protagonist’s motivation in layers, you’ll ensure their motivation is as complicated as that of any human being—and make your character seem even more real.

Step #2: Awaken or Threaten This Want with the Inciting Incident

The key to tying the story to the protagonist’s motivations begins with the inciting incident. This first major plot point, which happens during the first couple of chapters, draws the character into the main conflict through a single life-changing moment. So if this scene is going to shake up the character’s world and send her on a (figurative or literal) journey, why not shape that scene so that it plays upon—or preys upon—her motivations?

An inciting incident typically impacts the protagonist’s motivations in one of two ways:

  1. It Awakens: The protagonist is aware of her goal or desire but hasn’t actively pursued it. Thus, the inciting incident entices the protagonist through an event that introduces the main conflict and increases the protagonist’s awareness of her motivations by giving her a taste of its fulfillment.
  2. It Threatens: The protagonist is pursuing her goal/desire or appears to have already fulfilled it. Thus, the inciting incident acts as a threat to the protagonist through an event that introduces the main conflict and attempts to remove what the character holds dear from her life, compelling her to react so she can protect the people or ideals she loves or has been striving for.

To determine which direction your inciting incident should take, ask yourself, “How do I want the reader to feel when the inciting incident scene is over?” The awakening approach works best when the character’s circumstances are already less than ideal. That way, the inciting incident can offer a glimmer of hope, which can make the reader excited about the protagonist’s life changing for the better. 

The threat approach, however, can be effective no matter how promising or terrible the protagonist’s circumstances are. If the reader has connected with the character even in a small way when the inciting incident occurs, the reader will feel worried or concerned about whether the protagonist can save what she cares about. Which emotional response would fit your story best?

Let’s see how the inciting incidents in our three examples awaken or threaten each protagonist’s motivations:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: At the zoo, Harry is talking to a boa constrictor when his cousin, Dudley, and his friend push Harry out of the way. Harry then unknowingly uses magic to release the snake from its glass enclosure and set it after Dudley. This begins a chain of events that sends Harry to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the first place where he feels like he belongs.
  • Skyward: On the last day of school, Spensa’s teacher tries to convince Spensa to skip the pilot’s test, implying that she would automatically fail per the flight school admiral’s orders. Later, a disheartened Spensa finds an abandoned starfighter in a nearby cavern. This discovery reignites Spensa’s desire to fulfill her dream, and she resolves to take the pilot’s test no matter what.
  • The Road: The father’s motivation is clear from the beginning. His every thought and action revolves around keeping his son alive, including carrying a pistol for protection—which he uses when a stranger tries to abduct his son.

Step #3: Use the Protagonist’s Motivations to Influence Her Choices

Once the inciting incident occurs, the protagonist becomes more aware of her motivations than ever. She may not fully understand how high the stakes are yet, but she knows what’s important to her. She also knows she may have to make difficult decisions to make her goal a reality or to protect what she cares about. So as the story continues and the protagonist is forced to make those tough choices, she’ll fall back on her motivations and let them guide her decisions and actions, for better or worse.

At this point, you’ve already done most of the hard work. In Step #1, you determined your character’s motivations so you could craft an inciting incident that aligns with her goals or desires (or threatens to take them away) in Step #2. Now, for Step #3, keep the protagonist’s motivations in mind as you write each plot point. When it’s time for your character to make a new decision or take action, use these questions to ensure her next move is consistent with what she wants:

  1. Which option aligns most with the protagonist’s motivations? If the decision is a choice between “the lesser of two evils,” which option does the character see as being in her best interest? 
  2. How does the protagonist feel right now? How does her emotional state help or hinder her decision-making abilities?
  3. How do the protagonist’s decision and its outcome raise the stakes even higher?

Will your protagonist always make the right decisions? Of course not. Sometimes emotions will cloud her judgment. Other times, the outcome will turn out differently (and adversely so) than she hoped. But through it all, her motivations should remain consistent throughout the story, and her decisions should hold true to those motivations. And by ensuring that her choices grow more challenging and the costs even higher, you’ll prove to the reader how much the sources of the protagonist’s motivations truly mean to her.

What kinds of decisions have our three example characters made since Step #2? Let’s take a look:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry makes several of his decisions as a result of his desire to belong and be loved. He confirms his acceptance at Hogwarts because he wants to be with other children like him who perform magic. Later, he visits the Mirror of Erised to “see” his deceased parents because he misses the family he’s never known.  
  • Skyward: Spensa clings to her dream despite the odds against her. After she’s denied entrance to flight school, she is offered a way in by one of the first-year instructors and accepts it. Toward the end, after Spensa is expelled from flight school, she chooses to join the effort to defend the starfighter base against an alien attack—and to learn more about why she can “hear the stars.”
  • The Road: One doesn’t have to read too far to find more evidence of the father’s desire to ensure his son’s survival. He shows it during the story’s most pivotal moments as well as in his everyday actions, from providing the boy with food to choosing their shelter for the night. He also demonstrates it when he speaks to his son by offering advice, telling stories, and apologizing for yelling at him.

Step #4: Discover the Themes That Emerge from These Motivations

Notice what happens as you use Step #3 to craft the rest of the story. When each choice the protagonist makes aligns with her motivations, those motivations will remain consistent from beginning to end. And because you designed the main conflict to tie in with what your character wants (see Steps #1 and #2), the source of her motivation will constantly be on her mind as the story plays out.

This repetition is key to nurturing literary themes in a story, and not just from the protagonist’s motivations. That’s why repetition is part of our working definition of “theme.” In order for an idea to become a theme, it needs to be revisited throughout the story in an artful and nuanced way. Allowing your character’s goals and desires—her driving force since Page 1—to influence some of those themes is one of the most salient ways to achieve this repetition.

Review the work you’ve done in Steps #1 through #3. What concepts emerge through the protagonist’s motivations, the inciting incident, and the character’s choices afterward? It’s perfectly fine to list a couple of themes instead of one. As I mentioned earlier, our own motivations are complex, so we can’t expect ourselves to boil down our dreams and goals into one simple idea. Instead, ensure the themes you find align with what your character wants or is fighting for. And if they do, then you’re well on your way to creating a story that will be logically and thematically consistent—and that will make your reader feel endeared to the protagonist and invested in your story.

Below are the themes revealed from each protagonist’s motivations in our three examples. Do you have others to add to this list?

What are your protagonist’s motivations? How does the story’s inciting incident awaken or threaten them? What themes emerge from the story as a result of those motivations?

Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach who lives in Massachusetts. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Mass Poetry’s Poem of the Moment, The Aurorean, The Avocet, The Bookends Review, Golden Walkman Magazine, Soul-Lit, and other journals and anthologies. She can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, roaming the shores of Cape Cod, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.

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