How to Explore Your Characters’ Motivations

“We never fully understand other people’s motivations in real life,” says Orson Scott Card. “In fiction, however, we can help our readers understand our characters’ motivations with clarity, sometimes even certainty. This is one of the reasons why people read fiction—to come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.”

The question is, do you understand why your characters do the things they do? And are you conveying that understanding to the reader in an interesting way?

Character Motivation

Photo by Marco Bellucci

I recently edited an action thriller about a jaded assassin who is put into a situation where her choice will decide the fate of the world. Throughout the novel the reader asks, is this character good or bad? Is she a monster? Or does she have justification for killing?

One scene, in the middle of the novel, answers it all for us: a flashback to her childhood. This scene most perfectly delves into her motivation. However, the author skimmed over it. It was two or three pages long. It felt rushed, like the author didn’t know how important it was. In no uncertain terms, this scene was the center of the novel. We finally got answers to what made our character do what she did. But the author missed it.

The Endless Interrogations

To understand the motivations of your characters, you need to interrogate them. Strap them to a chair, shine a bright light in their eyes, and make them talk. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Why did you do that?
  • Did you have something happen to you as a child?
  • In high school?
  • In college?
  • Did someone hurt you?
  • Did you hurt someone else?
  • Were you spoiled by your parents?
  • Did you have parents?

Once you’re finished with your interrogation, you need to show the reader what you learned. Here, the best practice to show rather than tell. You might summarize what you’ve learned, but it’s better to describe the scene.

First, though, let’s just get into our characters’ heads.


If you have a novel you’re working on now, spend some time interrogating your protagonist, asking her why she does the things she does.

Write about her answers to your questions for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Thanks, this is great advice. I’ve often sat and written my character’s life story(abbreviated!) in first person as a way to get into their head , but this is definitely a stronger approach with more of an interrogation. I like that idea.

    • That’s a great practice too, Graham, especially to get into your character’s voice, their unique style of talking and looking at the world.

  • The Beast never calls me Ray and being twelve taking care of an old man isn’t exactly a Ninja’s dream, but it really is a sweet deal. I get to eat anything from the kitchen whenever I want and no one hits me. When the Beast leaves for the bars around eight, I put Ernie to bed and the TV and fridge are all mine. Taking care of Ernie isn’t that bad, even when he throws his lunch at me. I take the blame whenever Ernie wakes the Beast, so he won’t hit Ernie. The Beast may yell at me to paint the house but he wouldn’t dare hit me. One red mark and my social worker will pull me and the Beast needs my support checks. Ernie and I are his sole support. One day I will find a better place but right now I’m a dish-washing Ninja!

    • Wow, Hazel. This is so fun! And sad. So his motivations for staying with an abusive old man is that theirs lots of food and unlimited TV. But the downside is, he’s threatened with abuse and has to take care of an old man and a child. Still he has freedom and relative safety.

      Interesting. I think that makes sense for a twelve year old with an imagination who doesn’t want to be put in what could be a worse situation.

      And I like the way you tell it. He seems like the kind of kid that would be fun to follow around for a novel.

    • Marianne

      I like the way he is tough enough to know that he can’t be hit so that marks are left. He seems to understand the system. Is the Beast their father or a foster father. Anyway it sounds good.

  • Nora Lester Murad

    You do know that your staff hate you, don’t you? Why do you think that is?

    They may not like me, but they obey me. They know my standards are high and that I won’t let them underperform. Sometimes, if you want to do an exemplary job, you can’t worry about whether or not people like you.

    Why is it so important to do an exemplary job?

    When you reach the level I’ve reached in such an important international organization, people’s lives depend on you. You can’t let them down. If I don’t perform, there could be serious consequences. Imperfection is not an option.

    How does this need to excel affect the way you run your department?

    It makes work a constant battle against mediocrity and incompetence. All day long I have to correct every person a million times. They seem incapable of answering the phone properly, taking notes properly, submitting a proper report, scheduling simple events. They need me to explain every little thing. They are hungry for attention and validation. How do they survive?

    What would you do if one of your staff criticized you?

    They wouldn’t dare.

    But if they did?

    They would regret it.

    What is an appropriate punishment for someone who criticizes you?

    They need to be made to understand their place or the organization can’t run smoothly. I would make sure that they know their place and that those around them know what I am willing to do to keep them in their place. You earn the right to criticize by moving up through hard work the way I have. It is not a birthright.

    Your staff say that you take credit for their work. They say you lie about the staff to your superiors. Is that true? Why do you do it?

    They work for me. All the work of the team is my work. I submit the work to my superiors. That’s my job. I don’t take credit for their work, I take credit for my work, which is leading the team and ensuring the quality of all the team’s products.

    The staff say that you are cruel. You insult and disrespect them. You make them work too hard and respond unreasonably to their requests.

    That’s a vicious lie. I am one of the most admired managers in the organization, perhaps “the” most popular.

    You don’t take part in workplace social events. Why?

    Half my staff work very hard and they need a break after hours. If I were to attend these events, they would feel obligated to show deference. They would feel responsible for making sure my needs are met. I think it is right for them to have some time to relax. The other half of my staff are lazy and ignorant. I’m working hard to reallocate them to parts of the organization where they can do less damage or to help them realize that they should resign and find other work. I don’t like seeing those people in the office or outside the office. They should have self-respect and leave my team. Moreover, I work long hours. Sometimes I work late into the night and through the weekend. I don’t have time to play like people at lower levels of the organization.

    It sounds like you don’t care about people. How did you get that way?

    I am a very giving and compassionate person. Anyone will tell you how hard I work for the good of others. But that doesn’t mean that I’m weak. No, I’m strong. I became strong by taking care of myself from a very young age. My mother died when I was 5 and my father was often away. He had a very responsible position in the Salvadoran military and it was a time of war. He loved me very much but I rarely saw him. My caregivers could see how self-reliant I was and let me take care of myself. When one caregiver left and another came, I was the one to show her how to do her job! When there was no caregiver, I took care of myself just fine. Many people said that I was an unusually strong and capable child, and, as a result of my upbringing, I have always been a strong and capable adult.

    How about your relationship with your superiors? Is it positive?

    I am a highly regarded professional. My competence has never been questioned. I am trusted to carry a large load—larger than my peers—because they trust me to get the work done right.

    • Brilliant interrogation, Nora. I love that first question, “You do know that your staff hate you, don’t you?” Way to take the probe and dig in deep. He sounds like more of an anti-hero than a hero. Of course, sometimes these can make the most interesting heroes. Jack Bauer was hardly a nice guy.

      • Why do you assume the MC is a man?

        • 709writer

          I thought it was a man, too – the way your character behaves and responds reminds me of my main antagonist, who is also a man. These are insightful questions with insightful answers. Thanks for sharing!

        • Becca

          I immediately assumed it was a woman

    • Morgan

      you are really good. You helped me a lot.

  • did anything happen to you as a child?
    I always felt second. Second to my parents love for each other. I have friends whose parents are divorced, but I never had a friend like me, who was in interruption to their parent’s love and their life together. Mom and dad started leaving me alone in the house at night starting when I was seven so they could go out. Mom fed me dinner, something she heated up quickly and carried on a plate away from her body, away from her silk blouse or new dress. Mom sat, impatient and smelling like Jungle of Gardenia, applying and reapplying lipstick, smacking her lips together, tapping her long nails on the table, waiting for me to finish and not choke so she and dad could go out. They would lock the door behind them and I would fall asleep on the couch to Love Boat or Fantasy Island. I always woke up in my bed and told myself that when dad carried me upstairs, they must have sat under my canapy bed, brushing the hair off my forehead, kissing me, admiring me, loving me.

  • Interrogating our characters—brilliant concept!

  • How did you know my protagonist was female? She’s 15, actually, and I think you just might fall in love with her.

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  • wakamotorcycle

    What happened in the past in the Blitz Einsatz Rosenberg?

    I was the highest performing soldier in the unit. I have
    killed countless and destroyed many. I was cold blooded and didn’t care for any
    of them. As long as I can return home to my daughter and my wife I couldn’t
    care less. Richard Blues saved my life in the past and I now owe him a debt. He
    commanded me to lead the Blitz Einsatz to war in order to pay him back. He had
    already modified my body to become a super soldier when he saved me so I was
    virtually unstoppable. Even among the unit where everybody was modified I was
    the top performer. I outperformed any soldier and my ego grew. During the 4
    long years of war my ego inflated to the point where I would do anything to
    polish my name. But then during the final battle at Beijing, when I stood upon
    the Capitol building…I realized something. Something snapped inside my mind. Yes,
    it was when I have slain a girl the same age as my daughter. I have slain many
    in the past including these kind of girls. But somehow this girl snapped me
    back into reality. I went mad from the shame and guilt I have committed during
    the four years…how I never contacted my family…how I have become a heartless
    killing machine. Somehow in my crazed mind I came up with a way to repent it. I
    turned my back on the capitol and rushed back to my crew. I went on a killing
    spree against my unit thinking if I kill these criminals who killed many
    innocent people I can redeem myself. When I came to senses I stood upon pile of
    corpse who was once my companions. I have not only killed my companions, I have
    casted the entire victory for Germany. The Japanese successfully pushed back
    our invasion force and reestablished its Capitol back on Japan. Then we went on
    a ceasefire thus ending the war.

    What happened to your family?

    I would sometime delude that my wife cheated on me and left
    me. And the fact that my daughter is still with me, a sweet five year old.

    No, the truth is my wife had to move away from me to stay
    away from my mental state. I was going insane after the war…after killing so
    much. I was going insane to the point where I couldn’t see what reality was and
    what was fantasy. It went to the point where I would delude that my daughter
    wasn’t in the hospital suffering from a disease and was still in the house
    smiling as a never aging 5 year old. Her heart couldn’t take it anymore and
    moved away from me. She couldn’t bear the fact that I was slowly deteriorating
    away. After that point it was all downfall. I started seeing delusion of her
    with her non-existent boyfriend and delusion of my past self. I started working
    in the police force in order to repent my past. But my past self started
    interfering with me. Then I would fail every mission and bring down my reputation.
    The only reason why I was ever in the force because for some reason the
    military would back me up.

  • Lenore Snow

    This prompt helped me a lot, thank you! My MC has thus far been pining for life on the battlefield, and I hadn’t deciphered her motives for wanting to fight. Now I think I’ve got them pinned down. 😀

  • Line Gregersen

    It Is suck a great advice to interrogate you characters! BUT, I don’t think most people know why they do stuff, and would be able to answer the question “why did you do that?” truthfully. so maybe what you are doing is interrogating yourself as their creator, or the characters subconsciousness?? anyway, always good to be reminded to chat seriously whit you characters ^^

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  • Beth

    Why don’t you feel good enough?

    I… I don’t know. I feel like people are waiting for me to screw up. I’m not the prettiest girl, or the skinniest girl. I’m not the smartest or the most athletic. People care about that stuff, don’t they? It seems that way.

    Do you compare yourself to others perhaps too often?

    Probably. My best friend Reagan knows what she wants, and exactly how to get it. I just stand in the sidelines. I’m like her shadow, basically. It’s impossible for me to not compare myself to her. And other people… Like the friends I’ve recently made; they’re all so pretty and perfect. I feel like an outsider when I’m with them.

    Don’t you see your beauty?

    Are you blind? I think you’re blind.

    I think that other people see your beauty just as much as I do. Don’t you agree? What about Riley, don’t you notice that he sees it?

    Riley is just confused about me. It’s probably the simplest thing. I’m a girl, a new one, I’m different to what he’s used to, maybe? He’ll see me as a challenge and he’ll probably like that. Something to conquer. It’s got nothing to do with so called beauty.

    Don’t you think that Riley has good intentions?

    I don’t know what to think. I like Riley. And because I like him, I’m going to assume he doesn’t like me, and leave it there.

    So you’re afraid of getting hurt, then?

    I thought everyone was afraid of getting hurt. I’m not invincible. And thanks to my mental health, I’m even more vulnerable than I should be.

    Mental health has something to do with Riley liking you, does it?

    …No, not at first. But, when gets to know me more as a person, he’ll find out about everything and it will make him run. I guarantee.

    Are you psychic? Do you know what Riley, or other people, are thinking about you?

    I know that everyone is judged for their mental health. So he’s not thinking like this yet, because he doesn’t know me that well. But he will, and my state of mind will freak him out. I’m not normal. And all guys wants somebody normal, not complicated.

    So you think you’re not normal then, because of your mental health?

    That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Ironically, with my not so normal brain, I’m thinking that I’m not so normal.

    My protagonist, Elizabeth, is a lot like me. I’ve given her depression and anxiety so I can relate to her more. I’m talking about my own experiences through her.
    But doing this exercise made me see my character on her own. Not even a part of me.
    Sure, we’re very similar in the sense we could be twins. But I saw her for who I made her to be, and not a product of my imagination.

    • NC0207

      This is a very strong piece of writing. The honesty behind it is eye opening and very real. Thank you for sharing.

      • Beth

        Thank you so much 🙂

    • SiddharthTiruvalluri

      Amazing. Reading this helped me form some questions about my own protagonist. Love that you shared this.

      • Beth

        Thank you 🙂

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  • Uncreated Creation

    Q: Why did you join Boom?

    A: Why no?

    Q: Please don’t be avoidant

    A: I was bored, he talked about beating a conqueror with an invincible army and it seemed like the next thing to do, it seemed fun and exciting

    Q: The “next” thing to do?

    A: Yeah, that was clearly important

    Q: Important for what?

    A: Don’t know

    Q: …And why are you always so confrontative and disrespectful? even when people are trying to help you?

    A: Wait, they aren’t trying to help me, they are just acting in ways that I might or might not agree with, but most important, doesn’t seem completly logical, so I want to konw their reasons, just like you want to know mine

    Q: Why did you kill the man with the shotgun

    A: To take the shotgun

    Q: But he was helping you to fight

    A: But I wanted the shotgun

    Q: Did you felt guit

    A: Nope

    Q: Don’t you think it’s wrong

    A: Probably

    Q: If it’s wrong, why did you do it

    A: To take the shotgun

    Q: Why do you wanted the shotgun

    A: To kill the enemys

    Q: The man was alerady doing that, and you were already doing that without the shotgun

    A: I wanted to use the shotgun to kill the enemys, by myself, it’s like a new achievment

    Q: An achievement of what?

    A: Like an imaginary medal tha I wear in my imagination

    Q: Does that have a purpose?

    A: I don’t think so


    A: Whatever I want

    Holy s***t, I can’t control nor predict my character

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  • Going for Guiness

    Why would you go so far for your brother?

    You’re kidding, right? He’s my brother, and that should be enough for you. But if it isn’t my parents made me promise to do my best in raising him because they won’t be able to. I swore to them that I would, and they didn’t need to make me make that promise. I will always be there for my brother, like he has for me. We’ve been taking care of each other since I was eight and he was seven, and I kinda sorta always feel responsible for him…

    How far are you willing to go?

    Anything. Nothing’s too far. I’ll die for him, and I-I-I’ll even kill to set him free…

    How did you feel when your parents died?

    Look, can we not talk about this? Jeez, that was insensitive of you, why are you even asking me this? Please, stop asking questions.

    Just answer!

    FINE! I GOT MESSED UP, OKAY??? I WAS ONLY EIGHT, ONLY EIGHT WHEN I HAD TO HEAR MY PARENTS BEG FOR THEIR LIVES BECAUSE OF A FEW GOLD COINS. Listen, I can’t even go a week without a nightmare, and it took me a long time to get myself together just to take care of my brother properly. I just- I just got numb, and-and I hate those nobles and royalties, okay? I hate them , the rich jerks who suck everybody dry. There, I lost my cool, you happy now? Well, get on to the next question!

    Do you want to kill those nobles who killed your parents?

    Yes, yes I do.

    Then why didn’t you when had the chance?

    I don’know, okay? I couldn’t do it… I felt like I was no better than them, and despite them being the biggest bastards in the world, they had kids too. I can’t do that to them… I just can’t kill people… Whether they deserve it or not.

  • Andrea

    Working on a book titled Ruled. My male lead is named Landon.

    So, what is your job?
    ‘I’m the head guard. My job is to protect and serve the Royal family, to put their lives above my own.’

    What made you join this profession?
    ‘Family business.’ He looks away, a slight red tinge to his cheeks.
    Is there more to that?
    He stares back intently, ‘Is there a reason you must know?’
    …hmm I guess not. On to the next question!

    Favourite colour?

    Favourite Food?

    What do you fear?
    Landon crosses his arms, ‘I don’t have any fears.’ he leans back into the chair, legs stretched out in front.
    Everyone has a fear.
    ‘Not me. I’m not paid to have a fear.’

    Do you have a lady…?
    He raises his eyebrows, ‘A lady?’
    Yes, a lady friend, you know.
    Amused, he shakes his head, ‘I’m afraid I don’t.’ he smirks, ‘Could you please elaborate.
    Do you, Landon the Head Guard, have an interest in a woman?
    He’s silent for a few beats. A soft smile tugs at the corner of his lips, ‘I do.’ he goes quiet again.
    What’s her name and how long have you known her?
    ‘I think thats enough questions for now.’ Landon’s stoney expression leaves no room for negotiation.

    As you can see, he’s a bit guarded. Yes, pun intented.