Character Motivation Definition and Examples

Austin Valenzuela, Ann Casano
  • Author
    Austin Valenzuela

    Austin Valenzuela earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Grand Canyon University and has written about psychology for over four years. He is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy. His published novel Unholy: A Gothic Fantasy and short story in the anthology Beneath the Twin Suns are available everywhere. He is a member of the Florida Writers Association and National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

  • Instructor
    Ann Casano

    Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Read the definition of character motivation and its importance. See character motivation examples in literature, movies, and folklore to learn about character motivation. Updated: 12/27/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Character Motivation?

When viewing a story, there are certain requirements that the narrative must have in order for the audience to be invested. One of these aspects involves clear character motivation, or purpose behind the action of the characters. Character motivation means knowing the purpose for why a character does something in the story. This purpose can be supported by the audience, or hated and craved to be foiled, but the important part is that the audience can clearly identify and relate with the character's purpose. What is character motivation, and how do storytellers create it in their stories?

Character motivation is present most prominently in literary works, folklore, and pop culture. In these domains, the character motivation definition references direct reasoning for a character's actions or behaviors. One reason might be that the character wants revenge, or perhaps they need to find money fast in order to attend a big competition. Character motivation gets the audience invested in the story through exposition, or information about the character's thoughts and past, which justifies the character's actions. Examples of types of character motivation will be explored throughout this lesson.

The Importance of Character Motivation

Character motivation is important because it gets the audience invested in the story. Consider a villain's backstory, for example. Very often stories will spend a significant amount of time explaining the villain's backstory. In the later installments of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the author explains the backstory of Professor Snape in-depth through exposition. Rowling uses flashbacks to explain the motivation behind Snape secretly caring for Harry and wanting the best for him, and playing the role of a tough father. The plot reveals that Snape was in love with Harry's mother and sees much of her in Harry himself. Once the audience suddenly figures this out, many of Snape's actions are justified in the past because it is realized that he just wanted the best for Harry.

The importance of this type of explanation goes further. Since Snape's motivations about Harry are revealed, the reader can deduce that Snape's actions are meant to save Harry Potter. Once Snape is successful in doing so, the story comes full circle and a character that was once misunderstood comes to have newfound importance when his motivations are revealed.

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The motivation behind the villain in Harry Potter is to finish the one person he could not kill.

Image of the Harry Potter lightning bolt

Character Motivation Examples

There are many more character motivation examples throughout literature, pop culture, and folklore. Storytelling is a very old craft, and the use of character motivation can be found in the oldest stories ever told, from Norse and Greek myths to the Bible.

In this example of character motivation, a Greek vase is depicted showing two individuals inspired by the god of love.

Image of a Greek vase depicting Cupid

Examples of Motivation in Literature

One of the most famous examples of character motivation in literature is through the work of William Shakespeare. In his masterpiece, Hamlet, Shakespeare notoriously made significant characters, such as Claudius, most interested in themselves. This motivation of self-interest drives Claudius to murder his brother so he can assume the position of king, motivating the character Hamlet to avenge the death of his father. This is external stimuli for Hamlet, whereas Claudius' motivation is internal, driven from pride and a craving for the position of king.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is character motivation?

Character motivation is the reasoning behind the character's behavior and actions. This can be revenge, proving oneself, monetary gain, etc.

What is an example of character motivation?

An example of character motivation is in "The Lord of the Flies." The character Ralph simply wants to survive and get off the island. Unfortunately, Ralph struggles with those who are on the island with him, but by maintaining a level mind he is able to stay alive.

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