Character motivation drive a novel. Novels without character goals and objectives do not work. Or they have insufficient direction and the action derails quickly, the narratives prove to be aimless and without inspiration. Novels without character motivation have little meaningful purpose and stories without character motivation have an incomplete structure.
Characters, particularly the protagonist and antagonist, have specific aims at the story’s start. They want something or they want something to happen or they want something not to happen. Maybe they want to be left alone, want to just finish their day’s work and not be bothered by anyone. Maybe they want to hide from the world, from a friend, from an enemy.
But once a story begins, both your protagonist and antagonist have their lives interrupted by others or by events beyond their control. They’re pulled into a mission or quest or an adventure they hadn’t planned for. And now their goals have changed. Maybe a man still wants to be left alone to grieve but suddenly finds he must first save a friend’s daughter from the same man who murdered his wife.
Maybe a young woman must scour the universe for the man she thinks is her father. Maybe a retired spy must save the planet from an enemy he knows inside and out, one no one else has ever been able to find or identify or capture. Maybe he has only five days before his nemesis secures the feisty but unwilling scientist who can complete his nefarious plan and put it into motion.
Your protagonist now has new goals, goals that push and pull him through your story, that logically get him from scene to scene and meeting characters who either help or hinder him.
Easy or short-term motivation might come into play for a scene or for several chapters, but characters need potent long-term goals to get them through everything you plan to throw at them over the course of your story. The short-term objectives are important to move a story from scene to scene, but I want to focus on long-term goals in this article.
There’s the more important objective, that of saving the world. This type of goal would be sufficient to see you through a novel. Of course, not all save-the-world goals are literally about saving the world. This is an example of an external goal that a character reaches for outside himself.
Another type of motivation—protect the self—would be enough for a literary novel. To go after this type of objective, the protagonist might have to discover who he is. Or he might already know who he is and instead try to hide his nature from others, so they don’t discover who he is. He may try to protect the status quo and not rock the boat. Or, perhaps your MC is a boat-rocker and she’s determined to shake up her family in an effort to discover who she is and where she came from. This protecting-the self is an internal motivation and is often much more personal than the external kind.
Both saving-the-world and protecting-the-self goals can produce powerful stories and riveting characters. But can you imagine the story you’d create if you gave your lead character powerful external and internal goals? You could drive him relentlessly, playing the goals off each other so he has no choice but to succeed, no option to turn back. He can only go forward because to quit would shame him before the world (the literal world or his own world of friends and family and co-workers) or shame him in his own eyes. His failure might result in the destruction of that world. The best approach is saving the world and protecting-the-self goals for characters.