Narrative Motivation: How to Write Characters That Will Resonate with Readers
Learn how to harness the power of Narrative Motivation to write rich and compelling characters that will make your next novel a smash hit.
What makes a story compelling? Not plot, not action, but narrative motivation. Narrative motivation can be understood as the intricate interplay between a character's external desire, their "want," and their internal need that often runs counter to it. Characters drive stories, and not the other way around. By exploring the concept of want versus need in your characters, you will create a powerful narrative motivation that will resonate with readers and keep them engaged throughout the story. In this article, I will delve into the intricacies of want versus need, using the example of the character Jean-Luc Picard in the film Star Trek: First Contact to illustrate the concept. I’ve also included a second example using my own novels. If you stick with this article to the end, I have included a worksheet to help you define your main character’s narrative motivation and how it will unfold throughout your story.
In non-fiction, the concept of narrative motivation remains equally crucial. Just as with fictional characters, understanding the wants and needs of real people can help you craft a compelling and resonant story. Whether you're writing a biography, a historical account, or exploring the intricacies of a social issue, identifying the narrative motivation of the individuals involved will allow your readers to connect with these real-life characters on a deeper level. By investigating the driving forces behind people's actions and decisions, you can uncover the complex interplay of desires and needs that shape their lives. As a result, your non-fiction work will not only be informative but will also provide readers with a deeper understanding of the human condition, ultimately making your story more engaging and memorable.
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Understanding the Difference Between Narrative Motivation and Character Arc
The concept of narrative motivation centers around a character's external desire versus internal need, which creates a struggle within themselves. This conflict is vital in creating a character that resonates with readers, as it mirrors the complex emotional and psychological struggles that real people face. By understanding and incorporating this dynamic into your writing, you can create authentic, intriguing, and relatable characters.
When crafting a character, it is crucial to consider their growth and development throughout the narrative that will push them to resolve the challenges posed by their narrative motivation. This is known as a character arc.
Throughout the story, the protagonist must face situations that challenge their wants and needs, pushing them to question their beliefs, values, and actions. This internal tug-of-war between their desires and the lessons they must learn propels them along their character arc, ultimately leading to personal growth and transformation. By effectively employing narrative motivation, you will create a character that evolves and develops naturally and engagingly for your readers.
The Meaning of Want versus Need
To understand the concept of want versus need, knowing what each term means is crucial. A "want" represents something external to the self your character desires, believing it will improve their happiness. In contrast, a "need" refers to the lesson that characters must learn to overcome their inner struggles or wounds and attain genuine happiness. Like real-world people, characters experience things that cause them to feel unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied. Their want is what they believe will liberate them from these problems. In contrast, their need is a more profound issue they must confront and overcome to develop and evolve. It is through the narrative motivation that characters achieve the ultimate boon, whatever that happens to be for them.
Distinguishing Between Want and Need
When crafting your characters, it's essential to distinguish between their wants and needs. A character's want is a goal or mission they believe will make them happy, representing an external solution to an internal wound. Their want is intrinsically tied to their wound and runs at the most profound psychological and spiritual level. However, pursuing this want can harm them, disguising their actual need and creating a distraction that prevents them from overcoming their inner hurdles.
On the other hand, a character's need is the process they must undergo to face and overcome their inner demons. This truth will allow them to overcome their inner struggle, which could range from a simple realization to a vital spiritual experience.
The Purpose of Character Conflict
Character conflict serves two essential purposes in your story: for your plot and reader. The inner conflict created by a character's wants and needs plays a significant role in how they engage with your novel's plot. In your story, the protagonist's goals are defined by their wants at the beginning. However, their actions and plans are challenged by their need as the story progresses. Eventually, their need becomes the driving force behind how they face the plot of your novel. A skillfully crafted plot should reflect the protagonist's internal conflict, and the tension between their want and need should be intertwined throughout. This tension will determine how they discover their truth and ultimately embrace their need.
In non-fiction writing, exploring the want versus need concept is equally essential in creating engaging narratives. When writing biographies, historical accounts, or even memoirs, delving into the wants and needs of the individuals involved can provide readers with a deeper understanding of the subject matter. To flesh out want versus need in non-fiction characters, authors should consider the driving forces behind their actions and decisions, investigating the intricate balance of desires and needs that shapes their lives. In a memoir, for example, the writer can reflect on their life experiences and identify the wants and needs that have influenced their journey. By examining these aspects of their life, the author can create a more vivid and relatable story for readers, revealing the personal growth and transformation that has taken place over time. Ultimately, incorporating the concept of want versus need into non-fiction writing allows for a richer, more engaging narrative that connects with readers on a deeper level.
Jean-Luc Picard’s Narrative Motivation in Star Trek: First Contact
In Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Jean-Luc Picard's narrative motivation can be analyzed through the lens of want versus need to create a compelling character arc.
In the film, Picard wants to protect Earth and the Federation from the Borg, a powerful and seemingly unstoppable enemy. He is driven by a strong desire for revenge against the Borg, who had previously assimilated him, turning him into one of their own. This traumatic experience left a deep wound in Picard, fueling his external goal of defeating the Borg and eradicating their threat. His want is to destroy the Borg at any cost, which he believes will bring him closure and relief from the lingering trauma of his past.
However, Picard's need is to recognize the importance of maintaining his humanity and upholding the values that define him as a Starfleet captain, despite the strong emotions evoked by his experience with the Borg. Throughout the film, Picard faces situations that challenge his beliefs and actions, forcing him to confront the internal struggle between his desire for revenge and the need to preserve his humanity.
As Picard's character arc unfolds, he begins to question his actions and decisions, ultimately realizing that succumbing to his thirst for revenge would mean losing the very essence of who he is. In a pivotal moment, Picard recognizes that his humanity, compassion, and adherence to Starfleet principles make him strong, not his capacity for violence and vengeance. By embracing this truth, Picard can overcome his inner conflict and lead his crew to victory against the Borg while also maintaining the values that define him.
In this example, the narrative motivation of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: First Contact illustrates the concept of want versus need in a character, providing a rich and engaging character arc that resonates with audiences. By incorporating the concept of want versus need into Picard's story, the film creates a relatable and thought-provoking narrative that explores the complexity of human emotions and the importance of staying true to one's values.
Hasting’s Narrative Motivation in my series, The Saga of Hasting the Avenger
In my novels, the Viking Hasting's narrative motivation can be analyzed through the lens of want versus need to create a compelling character arc.
Hasting's want is to earn glory and wealth as a Viking warrior, following in the footsteps of his ancestors and continuing the legacy of his people. His external goal of amassing fame and fortune through raids and conquests is driven by a belief that this path will secure his place among the legendary heroes of Viking lore. This want is rooted in Hasting's upbringing and the cultural values that have been ingrained in him since childhood, which equate success and happiness with honor, bravery, and material gain.
However, Hasting's need is to recognize the importance of personal growth, empathy, and understanding in his journey, as well as the potential consequences of his actions on those around him. As he embarks on his adventures and encounters new people and cultures, Hasting's worldview is challenged, and he is confronted with the possibility that there may be more to life than the pursuit of glory and wealth. This internal struggle forces him to evaluate his priorities and consider the true meaning of success and happiness.
As Hasting's character arc unfolds, he begins to question the path he has chosen and the values that have guided him thus far. Through his experiences, he learns that true strength lies not in conquest and material gain, but in personal growth, empathy, and understanding. Hasting comes to embrace the truth that a life well-lived encompasses more than just the pursuit of fame and fortune, and that true happiness can be found in the connections he forms with others and the impact he has on their lives.
In this example, the narrative motivation of Hasting in C.J. Adrien's novels illustrates the concept of want versus need in a character, providing a rich and engaging character arc that resonates with readers. By incorporating the concept of want versus need into Hasting's story, the novels create a relatable and thought-provoking narrative that explores the complexities of human desires and the importance of personal growth and self-discovery.
Now, it’s your turn:
Defining your novel’s structure worksheet
In the following worksheet, start by carefully considering your character’s narrative motivation, then using it to craft a compelling character arc through the rest of the plot. This is what I call the “bare-bones” list of plot components that make a compelling story, and none of these should be omitted. Personally, I use a much longer format that follows the hero’s journey formula as stipulated by Joseph Campbell, which I will cover in a later article.
I would like to give credit where credit is due: I have borrowed this worksheet from my editor, The Darling Axe, who has helped me tremendously on my writing journey these past years.
Narrative motivation – What overarching desire drives your protagonist to make choices and take risks? What underlying need, in opposition to this desire, adds to the protagonist’s internal conflict?
Narrative bridge – Does the story's beginning ask a question that is answered by the end? (Your protagonist’s goal is the question, and the answer is whether they succeed or fail.)
Stasis – Describe your protagonist’s normal life leading up to the story's beginning. What is about to be disrupted?
The inciting incident – What event disrupts the protagonist’s stasis and kicks off the story?
Rising action – What are the first steps your protagonist takes toward a goal? What obstacles are in their way?
The point of no return – What critical choice does the protagonist make early on that locks them into a chain of consequences?
VII.Rising action – Now that the protagonist is fully committed to their quest, what initial choices do they make in pursuit of their goal? What risks do they take?
VIII. Midpoint reversal – At about the halfway point, what blindsides your protagonist and takes them in a new direction?
Rising action – Following the midpoint reversal, what new strategies or tactics does the protagonist employ in pursuit of their goal?
All is lost – Is there a dark moment leading up to the climax where the protagonist hits rock bottom or where it seems as if what they seek is beyond reach?
The helping hand – What or who helps the protagonist in their bleakest hour?
XII. Climax – What has the protagonist learned over the course of the novel that equips them to take on their final challenge? Do they achieve the goal forecast in the beginning (narrative bridge)? Or do they fail while learning something important in the process?
XIII. Falling action – What is left to resolve after the climax? Are there character conflicts that still need to be addressed? Side-plots that need to be accounted for?