Character Motivations: The Key to Gaining Reader Empathy

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm currently reading a number of books, not only for personal pleasure, but also because I'm a judge in the national Romance Writers of America RITA contest. With so many books on my night table, I find myself in major analyzing mode.

Truth be told, I tend to analyze most books I read anyway. But now I'm hyper-critiquing not only the books I'm judging, but even the ones I'm reading for personal pleasure.

With all the comparing and critiquing, I've realized that there's one common factor among the books whose characters I like and empathize with: I understand their MOTIVATIONS.

What is motivation?

Motivation is an important element in developing our characters. Essentially motivation is everything from the past that DRIVES or INFLUENCES our characters' actions and reactions within the current story.

What shapes character motivation?

Motivation needs to have its root in backstory which is the all of the history and baggage our characters have developed BEFORE our story starts. The characters' past lives contain pivotal events, problems, and usually hardships that contribute to their flaw. All that past stuff influences how they live in the present.

Why is motivation so important?

If readers don't understand why our characters do stupid things, or are afraid and angry, they'll likely experience frustration or annoyance at our characters. But if we hint at what's influenced the character (whether a traumatic event or many little things over time), then our readers will be able to empathize. They'll be more forgiving of our character's mistakes, because they'll understand why our characters are making them.

For example, in A Noble Groom, the hero is opposed to arranged marriages because he saw his own mother suffer in an arranged loveless marriage to his father. She eventually committed suicide because she was so unhappy with her life. As a little boy watching his depressed mother, he vowed never to marry anyone he doesn't love. So when he meets the heroine who is waiting to marry her mail-order-groom, a man she's never met, he can't understand or accept her willingness to marry a complete stranger.

My readers can empathize with Carl's hesitancy and stubbornness regarding getting married because they know the hurts of his past. They're cheering for him to overcome his flaws and work through those childhood pains.

On the other hand, if I'd made Carl stubborn about getting married just because he doesn't like farming or thinks there are too many social class barriers between him and the heroine, then I lose out on gaining reader empathy. While those other factors may also be true, having additional deeper past motivations always make the character more three dimensional.

How and where do we add motivation?

I often see writers falling into two groups. The first group dumps in too much backstory right away, sharing all the characters' problems and history as the book begins. The second group has a perverse fear of the backstory and so withholds too much information or waits too long before revealing it.

Yes, there's something to be said delving right into the action and waiting to share backstory until the plot is under way. But we also have to be careful that our characters aren't acting in a vacuum of motivation. Our readers long to know what is driving our characters' behaviors and emotions. If we leave our readers in the dark, then we must at least hint that we'll reveal those details later.

We don't want to take readers out of the story when we share about our characters' history. But we don't want to leave our readers dangling without any sense of the past.

The trick is weaving in those golden threads of motivation so seamlessly, that they show up without our reader realizing it. We're subtle. We drop hints. We tease, entice, and raise questions that give our readers just enough to empathize, to know that there's more under the surface that's driving our characters.

In other words, we as writers will know everything there is to know about our characters' pasts. But we'll carefully and strategically place tidbits in our story, just enough to make motivations clear and to make our readers care about our characters.

How well do you lay the ground work for your character's motivations? How do you keep the balance of sharing enough backstory so that reader's can empathize with your characters? But how do you keep from going overboard and sharing too much?


  1. Great tips on character motivation. And your example from your story is great. It's tricky to weave in the backstory of a character's motivation. It's the same for backstory in fantasies. I let my critique partners help me in my early drafts to hopefully get the balance right.

  2. I've picked up a few books where it seemed like none of the actions were properly motivated, so the characters seemed erratic and off kilter. Like Natalie said, extra sets of eyes is so helpful in identifying that. Subtly weaving in details is a great fix, but sometimes a writer doesn't necessarily see the lack of motivation in his or her own pages.

  3. Motivation is something that sort of comes easily to me because one of the things I always do in my writing is try to give my characters depth - the backstory, the events, both good and bad, that lead them to act as they do and make the decision they do now. Without that depth readers can't relate.

    Another great post, Jody!

  4. This is so wonderful! I still struggle with the balance of backstory and action and try to add action first, then fill in backstory. This is a great post!!

  5. I generally add it in along the way. Of course, it depends on whether or not I'm writing in first person or third because that will affect how the backstory comes into play. If I'm writing in first person, it has to be more organic in a way because we all have our own backstories that pop up in our heads all the time, like filling in the blanks. But either way, as the author, it's our job to plan in backstory as we go. This character arrives on the scene, which gives us this information. An incident or conversation leads to thinking about some past event that adds to the backstory here. It's like eating cake - you don't shove the whole thing in your mouth (or maybe you do); you cut off just enough to chew and eventually the whole piece is devoured. After a while, you get to know the character and why he is doing what he's doing.

  6. This is a personal, historical view,more related to the last post than this one, I have based on having seen the synopsis for 'Captured by Love'.

    It does seem to me rather unfair and biased to present the British as wicked evil invaders of the island where the book is set as the Americans themselves invaded Canada during the conflict in question- the war of 1812-14.
    Indeed, in spite of the way they are sometimes inclined to blame the British for causing this war, the intentions of some of them towards Canada seem to have been a cause too.

    I personally would like to see a Christian novel about the war which presented this other side, but I don't know if it such be published.


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