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Character Motivation
Common Core: 9-10.RL.3

Character Motivation

Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson introduces character motivation.

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Character Motivation: Why they do what they do




Characters are a lot like real people in that they usually have reasons (or motives) for behaving as they do. A character’s motivation determines what that character says, feels, or does in a given situation. The situation will present the character with the opportunity to react and make choices based on their personality. Without the situation the character would have no reason to react or do anything. Without a character’s personality it would be difficult for them to react to the events.

If the author has provided enough information about the character and the situation—enough motivation—the character’s behavior will seem understandable and plausible. Based on the moral nature or personality of the character and the situation, even the strangest behavior will make sense to the reader.


If the author hasn’t provided enough motivation for a character to act as they do, the interactions between characters and the events of the plot will seem unreal or fake.


Keep in mind that motivation can change as the plot and characters develop. It is best to evaluate a character’s motivation at more than one point in a text.


To interpret motivation from the text, look at both the personality of the character and the situation the character is in.


Character’s Personality

It is important to consider how a character’s personality is shown or described. Discovering a character’s motivation lies in connecting actions with intent, and personality will determine their intent.

To evaluate the character's personality, ask yourself the following:

  • What do you know about this character? What information has the narrator given about this character?
  • What morals does this character have?
    • Where did those morals come from? Family? Society? School? Friends?
  • What does this character value?
    • If the character is materialistic (valuing money and objects), what thoughts or actions showed this?
    • If the character values things like family, work, manners/etiquette, or status, what thoughts or actions showed this? 
  • How does this character react to other characters or the setting? Are they grouchy and unapproachable? Are they pleasant and outgoing?



To evaluate the situation the character is in, ask yourself the following:

  • Where is the situation located?
    • Is it in the main setting or is it somewhere new?
    • Is it at the beginning, middle, or end of the story?
  • What is happening?
    • ​What choices does the situation present to the character?
    • ​What decisions must the character make? How do they make those decisions?
  • Aside from the character being evaluated, what other characters are involved in the situation?
    • How does the character react to those characters?
      • Why?




Let’s look at some examples:

Example #1: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

  • Personality: Alice is young, energetic, a little naïve, and very curious.
  • Situation: Situation is sparked by the appearance of a rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch, whom Alice follows into and throughout Wonderland.
  • Motivation: Alice’s motivation can be seen in two ways:
    • As a young girl listening to history chapters being read out loud to her, she is likely to fall asleep and dream the imaginative world of Wonderland. Her age, inability to pay attention, and situation (listening to lessons) motivate her to fall asleep and dream.
    • As for the events within Wonderland: The rabbit presents Alice with the opportunity to embark on an adventure by following him down the rabbit hole. This situation combined with Alice’s curious nature motivates her to follow. Alice is not motivated to stop and think about her actions ahead of time (she is just 6 or 7 years old in the book), she is only able to consider consequences after she’s acted. Alice is first motivated to find out more about the white rabbit, but eventually, she is motivated to return home because she feels lost and tired.



Example #2: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

  • Personality: Though the narrator repeatedly tells the reader that he is not mad (insane), readers can easily see that he is.  The narrator admits to having had a disease that was thought to have destroyed his senses, though he claims it sharpened them.
  • Situation: The kind elderly man living next door to the narrator has one eye that, according to the narrator, resembles a vulture’s eye.
  • Motivation: The narrator admits that there is no other motivation for the murder other than the old man’s eye. He did not want the old man’s gold or objects. He did not have any ill feelings towards the old man, but loved him. The narrator was not motivated by greed or anger; he was motivated by a type of paranoia, which was brought on by madness. Given the situation he is in, and what readers know about his personality, his behavior only makes sense if he is insane. In this story, his lack of a believable motive for committing murder shows that his mind is unstable and unreliable. 

Character Motivation