You probably already know that motivation is everything in a novel. Nearly everything worth reading flows from a character who wants something and actively goes after it.
In writing advice land it’s popular to subdivide a character’s motivations into conscious motivations and unconscious motivations. Meaning, there’s something on the surface that’s motivating the character (saving the galaxy, defeating the dragon, figuring out what to eat for lunch) and there’s something lurking underneath the surface in their psyche that’s driving them (pride, vanity, hunger).
I don’t think about it this way.
Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve dreamed up wonderfully complex outlines that chart a character’s unconscious motivations with psychological complexity that would make Freud blush.
It never worked for me.
Here’s what does work: showing a character’s hopes and dreams with a great deal of specificity.
Why hopes and dreams are important
There are two main reasons it’s helpful to show a character’s hopes and dreams.
First, it helps establish the stakes. Showing what the protagonists hopes will happen if they succeed helps the reader understand why the events of the novel matter.
The reader tends to want what the protagonists wants, so understanding the best case scenarios gives us an anchor point that helps us invest in the struggle toward that north star.
But just as importantly, hopes and dreams help us understand what makes the protagonist tick. I think characters’ ultimate aspirations are severely neglected as a powerful writing tool.
Here’s why they work.
Hopes and dreams show us what motivates a character
You can come up with a list of all the unconscious motivations you want, but there are few things that tell a reader what motivates a character more than showing what it would look like if the protagonist could wave a magic wand and transform their life.
For instance, when I’m editing novels I’ll often see a character who wants a promotion at work. That’s a good start since it gives the character something to actively go after, but why do they want a promotion? What will their life look like if they get it?
Do they want to upgrade their apartment? Do they need the money for someone else? Do they want to lord their corner office over their coworkers? (Also, remember offices?)
It helps if you describe what the character is imagining with the utmost precision. You can’t possibly be clear enough about hopes and dreams.
Describe those hopes and dreams all the way down to the embroidery on the antique couch the protagonist will buy with their raise or the smiles on the faces at the children’s hospital after their huge donation.
Be very specific about whatever they have in mind.
Why it pays to make hopes and dreams specific
You don’t have to go on and on about hopes and dreams, but when they’re as specific and tangible as possible it tells the reader an immense amount about a character.
Wanting a promotion is vague. Lots of different characters might want that, and it doesn’t really tell us very much. A character who wants to use the raise from their promotion to save starving children is very different from a character who wants to lord their corner office over their frenemies.
Think about everything an antique couch or philanthropy conveys about the protagonist: It tells us about their values, their taste, what drives them, where they would choose to devote their resources if they had more. It will often be bound up in their history and preexisting relationships. The reader will interpret a huge amount based on that couch embroidery and those hospital smiles.
When you’re precise about what a character wants, the reader will deduce the values and qualities that undergird the dream. In other words, it gives us all the conscious and unconscious motivations you’ll need.
Whether it’s Clive Linley imagining the reception of his symphony in Amsterdam, Ralphie imagining what he’s going to do with the BB gun in A Christmas Story, Luke Skywalker accepting his destiny (“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”) in Star Wars: A New Hope… classic novels and movies abound with clear hopes and dreams.
Use them to show us what’s really motivating your characters and what ultimately makes them tick.
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Art: A reverie during the ball by Rogelio de Egusquiza
Cara Stevens says
This is fantastic advice and a good reminder to get specific when building a sympathetic main character. Thank you for sharing.