Do Superheroes Ever Have This Problem? Finding Your Character’s Motivation

By Seth Singleton


Getting up in the morning is hard enough without trying to save the world.

Getting up just to save the world does not sound like a good enough reason.

How do superheroes do it? Do they struggle?

Does Superman? Does Spider-Man?

What reasons do your characters have for getting out of bed?

Let’s bring it closer to home.

Why do most of us get up?

Why do you get up?

Sadly, motivation is not just written on the wall. Photo by Austin Chan.

Turns out, it depends on who you are and what matters to you.

Usually, doing something unpleasant, like getting up for work, is an obligation with a purpose, like providing for yourself or family. Like any responsibility, it can be hard to find the inspiration to get started.

Then it becomes about, how do you keep going.

Heroes, and other characters, often start out their journey with simple motivations, but they quickly become complex.

What is Motivation?

According to the American Psychology Association, motivation is “the process of starting, directing, and maintaining physical and psychological activities.”

It sounds simple until you read the second sentence.

“This includes mechanisms involved in preferences for one activity over another and the vigor and persistence of responses.”

That word mechanism implies machines, processes, and those are never simple when they are based on vigor and persistence.

The writing team at Blue Alchemy Studios was talking about the motivations for our characters during a recent meeting. I am the editor of the storyline for our upcoming release Planet Rise, and that means my job — one of my jobs — is to support the writers in every aspect of the story process. On this day we were talking about what these characters want. By establishing the goals of our supporting characters and our main characters we could map out potential conflicts and tensions.

The first example that came to my mind was Keifer Sutherland in the film A Few Good Men. Sutherland brought the character of 2nd Lt. Jonathan Kendrick to life when he explained that a dead marine, Private First Class Santiago, did not understand the consequences of the marine code.

A Character’s Code

This code is Unit, Corps, God, Country. Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, one of two defendants held responsible following Santiago’s death explains the code to his defense attorneys here:

This ethos defines the fundamental values held by a group of Marines who turned on a member of their unit. A series of ritual hazings led to his death and a military trial. Sutherland’s character, Kendrick, reasons that Santiago died “because he did not have a code.” He then explains that his code represents the priorities in his life. His first priority is his unit, then his corps, then to God and then to his country.

It is a powerful scene that demonstrates the decision-making process that dictates or justifies a character’s actions. It also shows the lengths a character will go when they believe their motives are just. Kendrick adds that Santiago was weak and his weakness was a threat to the unit, which threatened the corps, and their allegiance to God and country. This was not only the basis for his personal beliefs but the military orders he gave and obeyed.

“Commander, I believe in God and His Son Jesus Christ, and because I do, I can say this. Private Santiago is dead, and that is a tragedy. But he is dead because he had no code. He is dead because he had no honor. And God was watching.” – Kendrick

Back in the writing meeting, we agreed that by establishing the priorities for the characters in our story, we could decide what actions they would be willing to take and how far they will go to achieve them. Done correctly, and we would have a better understanding of what drives the characters we are writing. Characters who can make bold claims because they believe them.

What are Cornerstones?

In the recent HBO series Westworld, humans travel to a customized theme park where they can live out their fantasies, no matter how illicit. There are no consequences.

During one episode, a technician named Elsie explains how the characters portrayed by androids must have a foundation in order to help guests suspend their sense of disbelief. These “hosts” establish a connection for the guests that allows them to invest in the story. “Backstories do more than amuse guests; they anchor the host,” she says. “It’s their cornerstone.”

Rachel Scheller supports the word and explores its usage in the Writers Digest article What’s Your Character’s Cornerstone. She relates to the concept because a cornerstone’s roots lie in architecture.

In masonry the cornerstone was the first stone set in a foundation, influencing all other pieces, and if uneven the structure would never have a sound foundation. It’s a good place to start, but only if your characters don’t move.

Cornerstones were central to the construction of churches. A cornerstone’s exact measurements exemplified superior craftsmanship. This led to comparative analogy in religious teachings featuring Jesus the carpenter and architect of the church, and ideas about the cornerstones of faith. Peter, a follower of Jesus, was called the rock that the present-day Catholic church was built on.

Cornerstones were introduced by a guild of builders aptly named the FreeMasons. They were marked with the seal of the masons and can still be observed at national exhibits like the Washington Monument. They guarded their secrets carefully, which insured the mastery of their craft and the freedom of the order.

Why Characters Require Two Motivations (or More)

Monuments have it easy. Like all stone structures, they only require the one cornerstone. This is because buildings of stone are not designed to move. Once they are built, they stay in the same place.

Characters move. This makes their thoughts, beliefs, and actions more complex and requires more than one anchor to define them.

Motivations drive the characters we love to greatness. By Stephen Leonardi

Cornerstones of the characters we love anchor our connection to them through their beliefs. This does not mean that the cornerstones of our characters are not in conflict. In fact, it is the conflict that drives our characters. Much like the conflict that drives our own lives. We don’t want to get up in the morning. But we do. The reason why is complex.

The same is true for the characters in Planet Rise. Our main character Nia Kasai is facing a conflict that is a direct result of her two cornerstones, Duty and Family.

Nia is the eldest daughter and the member of an order sworn to protect her world from danger. Her responsibilities have always included looking after her sister and honoring her role as a member of the order.

Now that she is in the order and her sister is an adult these two cornerstones are at odds. Nia’s choices will decide the fate of her world and the world of her sister and family. Choosing family means sacrificing the belief that she has spent her whole life working for, it could mean the end of her world. Choosing her duty will sacrifice her ability to be there for her family and protect her sister from looming threats.

Storytelling is about revealing the motivations that create conflict. The actions a character is willing to take did not form out of the aether. Motivations reveal the dimensions of a character that cannot be shaped by a cookie cutter. They bring characters into conflict with heroes and villains alike, by showing the tension that competing desires create.

Click here to talk about the motivations and characters in your story.

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