Character Motivation Entry: Catching the Bad Guy/Girl

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.


Courtesy: Pixabay

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Catching the Bad Guy/Girl

Forms This Might Take:

  • Catching a killer before he strikes again
  • Stopping the terrorist before his bomb goes off
  • Identifying a kidnapper so his victims can be freed
  • Catching a ring of car or bank thieves
  • Figuring out who’s running a trafficking ring
  • Finding the person responsible for someone’s murder
  • Stopping a serial killer or rapist
  • Identifying the leak in one’s department
  • Stopping a megalomaniac or cult leader from killing a large number of people
  • Figuring out who the double agent is and stopping him/her from selling secrets to the enemy
  • Stopping an assassin from completing his mission

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): safety and security

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal

  • Traveling to places where the guilty party might be found
  • Enlisting like-minded people for his team
  • Gathering evidence
  • Interviewing witnesses and the victim’s family members and friends
  • Employing experts in their fields (profilers, private investigators, biographers, etc.)
  • Calling in favors for things that need to be done quickly
  • Going over an uncooperative boss’s head
  • Coming up with a short list of suspects
  • Inspecting associated crime scenes
  • Pouring over files, looking for connections
  • Putting together a timeline of events
  • Viewing all others with suspicion
  • Putting out fires along the way (defusing one of the terrorist’s bombs, saving an escaped victim, etc.)
  • Breaking the rules to get what one needs (breaking into someone’s apartment, ordering an illegal wiretap, roughing up a suspect for information)
  • Holding back information one doesn’t want to get out
  • Staking out a suspect’s home or place of business

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal

  • Losing the respect of one’s superiors when one goes against the chain of command
  • Slipping down the corporate or political ladder due to pissing off the wrong people
  • Strained family relations due to working long work hours
  • Becoming so obsessed with finding the perpetrator that one’s health suffers (eating poorly, not sleeping enough, etc.)
  • Getting emotionally or physically involved with a witness, suspect, or one’s partner, and ruining one’s personal relationships as a result
  • One’s family being threatened by the perpetrator or his cronies
  • Being injured or killed in the line of duty
  • Losing one’s job due to one’s obsession or an inability to follow rules and the chain of command
  • Becoming addicted to substances to help one keep going (caffeine, nicotine, sleeping pills, illegal drugs, alcohol, etc.)
  • Bankrupting oneself from personally financing the case
  • Making stupid mistakes due to fear, paranoia, pride, lack of sleep, acting hastily, etc. that results in lives being lost or people suffering

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved

  • The perpetrator himself
  • Those who want the perpetrator to remain free
  • Unreliable witnesses
  • Untrustworthy, unethical, or criminal co-workers
  • Political pressure being applied from higher up
  • Incompetent or lazy partners
  • Bureaucratic red tape
  • The hero’s personal demons (addiction, fatal flaws, doubts, fears, etc.)
  • The hero’s loved one ones who don’t want to see him hurt or who resent him putting the family at risk
  • Unhinged loved ones of the victim
  • Outdated or faulty equipment
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Emotional entanglements between the hero and people involved in the case

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • People dying or being injured
  • A lack of confidence in himself
  • Extreme guilt and self-loathing
  • Losing his job
  • Being injured or losing his life
  • The perpetrator killing his loved ones
  • Other criminals are encouraged to continue taking advantage of others
  • Society feels less safe and more anxious
  • Grieving loved ones of the victim may try to take matters into their own hands through vigilantism

Clichés to Avoid: 

  • The detective falling in love with the main suspect who he believes is innocent but is actually guilty
  • The police officer and her partner becoming sexually involved
  • The investigator’s boss being in on the plot and thwarting his efforts
  • Kick-butt characters (government agents, police officers, etc.) who are virtually indestructible

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.




Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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2 Responses to Character Motivation Entry: Catching the Bad Guy/Girl

  1. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…1/16/17 – Where Genres Collide

  2. Tammy Archambeau says:

    Love this!!! Thank you. ❤

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