Introducing The Character Motivation Thesaurus

Exciting days are here–a new thesaurus we think will be really helpful, because it is at the heart of every story:

The Character Motivation Thesaurus

sunset2This thesaurus will help you unravel some of your biggest story questions by specifically focusing on what your character wants (outer motivation), why they want it (inner motivation), how they might achieve their goal, and what stands in their way.

We will look at common story goals most often portrayed in books and film that center around fulfilling the protagonist’s missing Human Need, the common ingredient in any change arc. Here are the areas each entry will cover:

A Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation)

All stories feature a protagonist with a goal, something they are determined to achieve by the story’s end. This story goal matters to them; it’s personal in some way. Every action, choice, and sacrifice is made with the singular focus of achieving the mission. The goal might be to bring a killer to justice, reach safety when one is lost in the woods, or find one’s birth parent. Whatever shape it takes, the goal is tangible.

The Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation)

When it comes to the change arc, a meaningful goal must have a WHY attached to it: why does the character want to achieve this particular goal? The why is what interests us as readers, because the why is an underlying universal human need that drives behavior.

According to famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, all individuals are driven by needs that fall into five basic categories:

1024px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

If one of these needs is lacking, it creates a void—one that the character will go to great lengths to fill.

For example, if your character is safe, secure, and loved, yet craves the recognition and esteem of others, he will grow increasingly anxious and dissatisfied. Once this reaches a critical point, he will feel DRIVEN to make a change. His need for esteem and recognition will push him to act, and direct him toward a very specific, tangible goal. Perhaps he quits his job to go back to school and obtain a degree. Maybe he decides to fight his biggest rival for the promotion he knows he deserves. Or, perhaps he makes a plan to leave a toxic parental relationship that is rife with mental and emotional abuse.

These needs are universal, meaning they apply to everyone. Readers will understand the character’s yearnings for something more and to feel complete. This sets them up to care about the protagonist and want them to succeed.

Needs are powerful, and can alter a character’s personality or even force him to the edge of his own moral code (and sometimes beyond). Knowing which needs your character is missing will let you know how that lack will affect her. Like the all-important picture on the cover of a jigsaw puzzle box, this knowledge will help you piece together many other related elements that are important to her personality and your story.

Methods for Achieving This Goal

Whatever the goal is, your protagonist can go about trying to achieve it in different ways. For instance, a heroine with the goal of having a child could accomplish this by trying to conceive with her partner, but she could also pursue artificial insemination, undergo fertility treatments, adopt, or become a foster parent.

The route your character takes will depend largely on her personality and life circumstances; having a list of choices will help you to brainstorm a path that works for your story while sparking ideas for possible roadblocks, obstacles, complications, and dangers that might stand in her way.

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

To make our story even more compelling, our characters should be somewhat unsuitable for what lies ahead. Both inwardly and outwardly, they will need to make changes: gaining new knowledge, seeking out help, training, learning new skills, shedding bad habits, or otherwise preparing themselves to achieve their goal.

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated with This Goal

For a goal to be meaningful, it often comes at a cost. Change is never easy, and moving toward something also means moving away from something else. The character may have to give up certain comforts, freedoms, habits, and fears if he is to move forward toward a new reality.

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

Our job as writers is to make sure whatever our protagonist wants, they have to fight for it. Conflict & tension are the butter we spread on storytelling bread, so for each goal, we’ll look at possible friction points (people and things) that can be used to block them. These roadblocks can also come from within, such as fears and insecurities that are holding your protagonist back, or moral lines that challenge their commitment to the goal.

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal

Who your character is deep down is an important piece of the puzzle, because special skills and talents can help them with goal achievement. Listing out certain skill sets tied to a goal will provide ideas for possible talents you may wish to give your character so they can overcome the difficulties ahead.

Possible Fallout if the Need Driving This Goal Is Not Met:

Inner motivation (needs) and outer motivation (the goal) are bound together, and making the decision to chase a goal takes courage and a leap of faith. To make the story as compelling as possible, something needs to be on the line. Readers need to know what is at stake…what will happen if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal, and his critical need goes unmet.

Clichés to Avoid

Finally, as you can imagine when dealing with common goals, there may be some clichés all writers should be aware of. Above all, we want the story to be fresh and innovative. Knowing what the clichés are will help us think outside the box when it comes to a goal, giving readers a satisfying and rich ride.

We usually add a new entry each Saturday, and you can find the entire list of entries for this Thesaurus HERE. And to check out the 13 (yes, 13!) OTHER Thesauruses we have that focus on description, check out our Thesaurus Collection page.

Happy writing!

Angela & Becca

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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41 Responses to Introducing The Character Motivation Thesaurus

  1. K-lee Klein says:

    This thesaurus is one of my favourite already. I hope it becomes a real book. I have all your print books, plus some doubles in kindle too 😉. I also love that one of you (Angela) lives in my city & hope to meet you in person one day. Keep up the great work and if you ever need someone in Calgary to help in any way, I’m your lady.

    Hugs,
    K-lee

  2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! After I’m finished getting my word count down I’m going to read all of this, this is a wonderful article. <3

  3. Pingback: Writing Links Round Up 12/26-12/30 – B. Shaun Smith

  4. Yolanda says:

    I really hope this thesaurus becomes a book. I’ve purchased all of the available books in ebook and paperback and they are the best. Thank you ladies for the great resources you provide.

    • Any thesaurus that we have a strong response to we’ll either convert into a book, move to One Stop For Writers so users can access it, or both! 🙂 Very glad you’re finding this one helpful. 🙂

  5. Jay Hicks says:

    PLEASE PLEASE bring on the book. This, after all, is the crux of story.
    It’s the beginning, and the end, a light to lead the way. An incredible toolbox for inspiration and purpose, direction and meaning.

    • Very glad this thesaurus has been helpful to you, Jay. Thanks for letting us know you’d like to see this as a book, as we evaluate each thesaurus carefully by the responses we get to them when deciding which project to tackle next. 🙂

    • :Donna says:

      You know, for some reason, your comment, Jay, helped this dawn on me:

      Becca and Angela, I know I, along with others, have expressed this desire to see all your thesauruses as books. You explained that you found some thesauruses not worthy of stand-alone books, BUT—would you consider compiling the “lesser” (not in my opinion) ones into one or two volumes? All the information you girls put out is stuff I REALLY want on paper in BOOK form, not just read online or printed out from the computer. I’ve purchased ALL your thesauruses and will continue to do so. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I get the feeling compilations would sell just as well.

      Just something to hopefully consider? 😀

      • Donna we are happy to consider everything, but what it really comes down to is time. Between creating new thesaurus content here, converting a chosen thesaurus into a book, designing content for One Stop for Writers, running one stop for writers, marketing OSFW and Writers Helping Writers and our books, managing several companies between us, creating workshops/practicing/travelling/teaching and the mountain of research we do to continually evolve our knowledge…we juggle constantly. Add family and life stuff…it can get crazy. So we really think hard about which project to put forward each time. 😉

        Sorry I hope I don’t sound like I am whining! We are incredibly grateful to do what we love and to be supported by so many. We just basically need clones, haha!

        • :Donna says:

          Oh, my, Angela! You know, I am always amazed with how you accomplish so much, but with you listing it that way, I’m even MORE amazed! Then I’ll just be grateful the info is here at all 😀

  6. Beverly King says:

    Hurray! Hurray!! I can’t wait for the character motivation thesaurus. This is just exactly what I need.

  7. You keep tantalizing us with these tidbits gems of motivation. When do we get to see the actual book, and when will it be available for sale? Or … is it only an online blog post-type narrative and instruction? I’ve been looking on Amazon. Nothing yet.

    • Hi, Carol! This thesaurus is one we’ve just started at the blog. What you see is all that we have so far. What we typically do is begin a thesaurus on the blog to see what kind of response we get. Eventually, when we retire the thesaurus to start a new one, we figure out if the response warrants us turning it into a book. Some get published and some don’t. It sounds like you’re definitely interested in seeing this one in book form. We’ll take that into consideration. 🙂

  8. Angela: you save my writing every time! Each time I visit your articles or OneStop, I find a new delicious nugget of brilliance. Thank you so much for your expertise and sense of community.

  9. Sacha Black says:

    Okay, THIS… this is EXTREMELY exciting. I need it too, proper relevant as I’m picking up a minor character from my series to write a novella, and I’m not sure of her motivation or what she needs yet, which actually tells me she still needs work in my main book… sigh. Now if you could just work at the speed of light with no breaks ever to get it finished that would be swell… ? Joking. Seriously though, very excited ?

  10. Claire says:

    Awesome thesaurus already.

    Please tell me hunting down a serial killer, kicking an addiction, and getting revenge are going to be on this list sooner or later.

  11. Gwyn Huff says:

    This is going to be a crown jewel to the other thesaurus- because human-need-unmet and goal to get that need met is collossol. I am familiar with Maslow hierarchy of Needs. Really looking forward to this one!

  12. Totally exciting and awesome! I love everything you two do, and I can’t wait to add this new one to my collection. 🙂

  13. This is the one I’ve been waiting for. I’m so excited!

  14. LOL, you guys are the best–we haven’t even rolled out a single entry yet and the excitement is through the roof. HUGS ALL AROUND!

    Just to reiterate…this may or may not become a book. Becca and I never decide that until we see how it does on the blog. I can absolutely tell you though that it will be put up on One Stop For Writers at some point, no matter what.

    Our plans are still to tackle the Emotional Wound Thesaurus book next. 🙂 After that, we’ll likely do a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus.

    Happy writing, you guys!

    • :Donna says:

      Oh, Angela and Becca, just so you know—-I 1000% prefer REAL, print books, especially something like this and, as you know, am TOTALLY willing to pay for such high quality as you gals put out there for us 😀 😀 😀

  15. Really looking forward to this one! Just what I need! And I do have the other five books you’ve already produced. Love your work!

  16. Celia Lewis says:

    Oh my… gold mine here!! I’m stumbling through my budget thinking if I maybe-just maybe could get a copy. 🙂

  17. Nancy C says:

    Wonderful news! I need all the help I can get 🙂

  18. Ashlyn says:

    What a great idea! This will be so helpful, especially for those of us just starting out (and throughout our careers). I can’t wait to purchase a copy. Thank you for sharing your talent!

  19. Brilliant idea! Looking very much forward to it!

  20. I can’t wait for this!

  21. :Donna says:

    Wow, you gals NEVER cease to amaze me! I have your 5 other thesauruses and REALLY look forward to yet another! I’ll own whatever you gals put out there 😀

  22. I’m gonna need a bigger shelf …

    *calls out* “Honey, can we go to IKEA this weekend?”

  23. The “Human Need” is something often left out of stories. When I think of the characters who stayed with me long after I finished the novel they were the ones who I felt I really knew; they were humanized.
    Your new thesaurus will certainly add to the writers ‘toolbox.’

  24. Wow!!! This new thesaurus sounds amazing!!!

  25. Sara L. says:

    SOLD! Looking forward to each entry as they’re posted! 😀

  26. Carol Baldwin says:

    There are no superlatives big enough for y’all. Your work is AMAZING! looking forward to this. Will share it with my writing class; I just taught them some of these concepts tonight.

  27. JC Martell says:

    Amazing – Yes! I’m imagining all the story ideas that could come from such a thesaurus.

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