The Importance of Character Motivation

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading The Mark of the Dragonfly, a young adult (they say Middle-Grade but I contest it) piece of fantasy. The novel follows Piper, a gifted young mechanic who rescues Anna – a young girl – from the clutches of a shadowy pursuer. The two store aboard a train that is on route to Noveen, the capitol city of this particular fictional world. While Mark of the Dragonfly is set in a unique fantasy world and stars three compelling protagonists, I found an issue that severely hampered my enjoyment of the later chapters. This problem underscores the focus of today’s post: the importance of character motivation.

In crafting compelling characters, their motivation matters (I have highlighted this in an earlier post). Motivation can be defined as “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.” The best characters have reason behind their actions, and that reason comes from motivation. For example, if a character has their village burned down by a foreign invader – they may be motivated to go on a quest to take vengeance. That motivation will underlie every single action they take on that journey.

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Hans from Frozen was a weak antagonist because he lacked the proper motivation. His actions felt tailored to serve the plot, rather than a full development of his character.

Most of the time, the main motivations of a story are simple. Harry Potter is motivated to become a wizard and defeat Voldemort. He does the former because he wishes to, he does the latter because he must. This underlines the basic difference in motivation type: things a character does because they are essential needs, and things characters do because they wish to. Harry Potter does not have to become a wizard in order to stay alive, but he must stop Voldemort before Voldemort kills him.

Harry behaves accordingly. Throughout the book, we see the joy that he takes in going to classes and making friends. J.K. Rowling uses a light vocabulary to convey this mood. In facing Voldemort, the word palate changes. Harry faces Voldemort with resolve and grim determination. This word choice is a tool that authors can use to reinforce the difference.

When it comes to motivation, essential need beats desire: characters that do not enjoy eating or sleeping must still do so to survive. Harry Potter cannot pretend that Voldemort does not exist… well he could, but then he would die and the reader would be very unsatisfied with the story. It is very important to the realism of a character that they follow this motivation structure.

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The Mark of the Dragonfly breaks this. Throughout the story, the relationship between Piper and Anna has been growing. They began as strangers but have become sisters. We have been told over and over how Piper increasingly views herself as a guardian of Anna, and all of her actions reflect this.

Piper has also been enjoying her life on the train. She loves the machinery of it (as well as its head of security… conveniently someone her age).

While Piper has been developing these two attachments, the main plot has been progressing. Anna is still being pursued and the conflict has escalated. They have learned that the pursuer is someone of high rank in the kingdom’s government, meaning that this antagonist is much more dangerous than previously thought.

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As an aside, the back cover of Mark of the Dragonfly does an excellent job showing off the main characters and the main setting.

Despite this, Piper comes to a decision: to abandon Anna in the capitol and remain on the train. In one chapter, the likability and believability of Piper is shattered. She is acting of wishful desires rather than reality, ignoring the escalation of previous chapters. This not only reduces Piper, it diminishes the threat that author Jaleigh Johnson had spent hundreds of pages establishing.

This could have been handled differently, with Piper wishing to stay on the train while knowing that she cannot. In this way, the conflict continues its escalation – with the potential for a rift forming between Piper and Anna. Piper may come to resent her companion for depriving her of the life she so desperately hopes for.

Imagine in Harry Potter if Harry had said “nuts to Voldemort, I’m just going to live with Serious Black!” during Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The reader knows how desperately Harry wishes that he could do this – and that makes his struggle all the more emotionally powerful (while justifying Harry’s increasing anger and frustration).

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Yeah, Peeta really cares for Katniss in The Hunger Games but… he also likes being a baker… so he’ll just go do that. Imagine how that book goes.

This unfortunate decision created a spiral that lead The Mark of the Dragonfly to an unsatisfactory climax (the villain is defeated by sheer timing and later explained exposition). By reducing the threat of the antagonist, the novel pulled a last-minute switch to change course. The train came off the rails and the reader never reaches the destination they felt was owed.

Essential need always overcomes desire – it can never be the other way around (without the author fully considering all the consequences). The best characters have motivation, and that motivation must make sense.

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