Motivation of Your Characters

by Randy Ingermanson

[Editor’s note: If you are not getting Randy’s ezine, I do recommend you do. It is packed with lots of thought-provoking writing, organizing, and marketing advice plus it’s plain common sense stuff.]

3) Craft: How to Measure Motivation

Practically everything in fiction eventually comes down to your characters’ motivations. The lead character in your story wants something, One Thing.

It’s tempting to say that the strength of your story is directly proportional to how much your lead character wants that One Thing.

But that’s false. It’s so far from being true, it’s not even wrong.

Let me explain how you measure motivation. I’ll do that by telling you a little story…

Back in August, most of America took a day off to watch the total eclipse of the sun. By good luck, the path of totality came very close to where I live. We were scheduled to see 99% coverage at my house. Which is not bad, but I wanted more.

On the day of the eclipse, my daughter and I got up early, packed our gear, and left the house at 4 AM to beat the traffic. We drove for a couple of hours until we reached a friend’s house in Salem, Oregon, dead center in the path of totality.

Then we waited for a few hours to watch the show.

When it was over, we waited several hours for the traffic to die down, then headed north. The freeway was slogging along at parking lot speeds. After an hour of that, we took an exit and zigzagged across the countryside on back roads, using our phones to navigate. It took us four hours to get home.

The trip burned an entire day, and it was quite an adventure, just to see two minutes of eclipse.

Why’d we do all that, when we could have watched the eclipse from our own back yard?

Because 99% isn’t 100%. It’s not even close. I watched the coverage go from 0% to 99% and it was qualitatively the same thing. Sure it was less and less sunlight, but sunlight is sunlight. Then I watched the last little bit of the sun wink out, and a hole appeared in the sky where before there had been blinding light. A hole is not sunlight.

The difference between 99% and 100% is huge. They are different kinds of things, not different amounts of the same thing. The reason is because 99% totality is 1% sunlight, whereas 100% totality is a hole in the sky—no light at all.

Something is qualitatively different from nothing.

When you have the chance to see a total eclipse of the sun, you should take it. The opportunity doesn’t come along very often.

But I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do when the next total eclipse comes along. I’ve seen one and it was pretty cool. But I’ve seen one and I don’t feel a strong need to see another. If it’s convenient next time, I’ll probably go watch. Otherwise, I might just give it a pass.

Now contrast my attitude with those people who get addicted to seeing total eclipses. They’ll spend thousands of dollars. They’ll take days to reach the zone of totality. They’ll camp out in insanely terrible places. They’ll charter boats or airplanes to get themselves to exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. They’ll risk the possibility of a rain-out or cloudy weather.

All for an experience that never lasts longer than seven minutes.

That is some serious motivation.

These eclipse addicts are all-in. Whereas I’m not all-in.

My level of motivation to see a second eclipse is 99%. Theirs is 100%.

Those are qualitatively different motivations. When you’re all-in, when you’re 100% motivated, you’ll do anything, no matter how crazy, to feed your need.

When you’re not all-in, when you’re only at 99% motivation, you’ll do whatever’s convenient.

Write stories about characters who are all-in on their story.

Characters like Luke Skywalker, who’ll do anything to defeat the Evil Empire.

Like Lizzie Bennet, who would never think of marrying a man unless she loved him 100%.

Like Katniss Everdeen, who’ll do whatever it takes to survive the Hunger Games.

If your lead character is all-in on your story, then your readers will be all-in too.

If your lead character isn’t all-in, then you won’t be either, and neither will your readers.

That’s how you measure motivation. All-in. Or not all-in. As Yoda once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”


  • What is the One Thing your lead character wants?
  • How bad does she want it? Does she want it 100%? Or only 99%?
  • If she’s not all-in on that One Thing, then fix your story or kill it.


(c) 2017 Randall Ingermanson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit
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