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A Binary Approach to Motivation

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, July 11, 2020

I've talked a lot about motivations in my articles. And how could I not? My scientific field aside, what makes us behave in certain manners or way is a question that has occupied entire schools of thought in psychology, philosophy, political science, even AI and (bio)chemistry.

There are as a result a whole lot of ways to approach the analysis of motivation (even if you're a hardcore behaviorist and instead of ‘motivation’ you call it ‘learning history and reinforcement’), but what could be a quick rule of thumb when we are creating characters in narrative arts?

In my experience, the easiest and fastest way to get a good grasp and feel about your character's inner motivations about pretty much the entire spectrum of his/her behavior falls under the following list of questions:

1. What does your character love the most?

2. What does your character fear the most?

3. What does your character fear more than love?

4. What does your character love more than fear?

The answers to these questions are going to give you your character's entire framework and limits in what they want to do, need to do, and most importantly, can or cannot do.

Within these answers lies the ‘thin red line’ that they can or cannot cross when the chips are down in any situation. If they fear something more than they love something else, then they'll prioritize satiating the fear more than satisfying the love- without meaning that they don't still have love for that something.

There was a very powerful scene that has stayed with me from a Greek movie about a bunch of young people trying to help the resistance during the Nazi Occupation. Every single one of them is portrayed to be genuinely invested and loving each other and their people, and the freedom they're fighting to regain.

At some point, they get captured, and subjected to torture in order to give up some important information. And they all endure at first: they love their cause more than they fear the whip. However, during the second or third round the torturer changed the method of duress, and threatened one of the young men to do what he was doing to the young man's mother.

The young man broke, and gave up the information: he loved his mother (or feared to watch her in pain, if you like) more than he loved the cause.

After all is said and done, and due to the information a big crackdown on some cells is successful, the group is released. They don't blame the young man for breaking, understanding him, even if all the others didn't break. However, he can't live with what he did, and throws himself off a window, killing himself: he still loved the cause. It's just that another love (or another fear) won out in that situation, and when left with the results, he couldn't go on.

This is of course an extreme and dramatic situation, but the tug of war between what we love and what we fear is a lot more pedestrian and daily than we might think- and the same goes for our characters:

Does your character still go to school even if he/she is bullied daily? Then there's something he/she loves more than the fear of the bullies (not necessarily within the school, but with relation to what going to school stands for).

Does your character refuse help he/she direly needs, in order to succeed on his/her own or not at all? Then they might love their pride more than the fear of failure.

Does your character conform to a clique they don't really like, emulating their dress code or mannerisms? Then they may fear rejection more than they love their own agency.

And so on and so forth.

Of course, this is the rough rule of thumb. The whys and the hows, and the more detailed delineation of how this love vs fear manifests and where it stems from, as well as how it develops (the character can grow out of a fear or a love) is the dressing, the flesh that comes to rest upon this skeleton we've just explored.

But as long as you keep it in mind, it will help you always have your finger on the pulse of your characters' hearts, even when they seem to be behaving inexplicably. Like your AVPU scale for motivation.

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Corruption at 12:59AM, July 14, 2020

@EssayBee, I see it not as love being beaten by fear, but love fueled fear winning over loyalty, ethics and honor to his side. He had a choice, his family (or potential family), or the Jedi order. Incidently, from a plot perspective this worked well as keeping in line with the prophacy, and explained why Love was forbiden to Jedi. (Although, he did have his brother and sister in-law killed while tracking the droids . . . I guess duty won there) A great potential source of material is where the character tries to avoid losing anything instead of just one thing. In this matter the character is not chosing, but choising to avoid chosing (if it makes sense to you. I know it does to me.)

EssayBee at 5:45AM, July 13, 2020

Those four questions are really good, but folks may be surprised at how malleable such traits can be. Just because characters adhere to this good framework, there's still the chance that--within an evolving story--they manage to surprise because of some nuance in the situation or plot that twists those fundamental drivers in a way that may not be readily apparent. Plus, putting opposing questions against one another and how a character chooses can prove to be even more defining. Anakin Skywalker's downfall was determined by such a choice (where fear won over love initially thanks in no small part to the Chancellor's methodical prodding). Yes, love eventually prevailed, but those years of uncertainty were certainly calamitous for the character.

Corruption at 3:03AM, July 13, 2020

I am more plot orientated then character driven. I design characters with the plot in mind, including pressures to make them grow. For the relationship between plot and character I have this view "Plot expresses character; Character enacts plot" The plot expresses character by showing the choices they make, or don't. The characters enact the plot via their actions or inactions giving meaning to it.

usedbooks at 2:58PM, July 11, 2020

Very well put. I remember Alex Hirsch explaining in his Gravity Falls commentary that every episode needs a "decision point" for the plot's main protagonist (or all main protagonists). I think I forget that crucial advice sometimes. Decisions define characters, and also character development/change. If you want to show change, present a character with a decision before the change, and a similar one after it. Also, hidden motivations can make a character seem one way to an observer when their true reasons are different. A character that betrays a cause might be being blackmailed or playing a long con. Likewise someone who seems selfless and generous might be maintaining an image/cover or have alterior motives.

Banes at 6:00AM, July 11, 2020

Excellent stuff! I want to run my characters through this love/fear grinder and learn about them more deeply.

marcorossi at 1:16AM, July 11, 2020

In my case, the main thing I think about is what does a carachter see as his/her role in the world. For example if there is a carachter who is a nazi soldier, is he there because he is a true believer or just because of conscrition or other social pressures? How does he or she react when what is happening puts in question his or her believes? I find it hard to give a list of "things" a carachters wants, I'd rather think in terms of what a carachter wants to be.

Ozoneocean at 12:06AM, July 11, 2020

Seemignly simplistic but it can build up complexity very easily!

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