How Writers Can Use The Psychology Of Motivation To Create Believable Characters

When sitting down to write a story, it’s tempting to begin by completely fleshing out your hero first, and then figuring out what kind of situation to put him in, but that’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s more efficient to start by asking yourself what need the hero is trying to fulfill, and then reverse engineer everything else, including your hero, to cater to the goal he’s trying to accomplish. The hero may be the star of the movie to the audience, but to the author, during the writing process, the need the hero is trying to fulfill is the star, and the hero is just another dependent variable.

Until you’re ready to define your hero, visualize him as a blank-faced man named, Homo Economicus, “Homo economicus, (aka economic man), is the concept in many economic theories portraying humans as consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agents who usually pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally.”

Drawing of a faceless man. Below him are the words, "HOMO ECONOMICUS: A consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agent who usually pursues their subjectively-defined ends optimally."

A psychologist could tell you why all the 250 highest ranking movies on IMBD are about a consistently rational and narrowly self-interested hero who accomplishes a goal to attain an incentive that satisfies a need. It’s because every member of the paying audience is a rational, sentient human being whose understanding of reality is based on the human experience.

When a story revolves around a hero who thinks and acts like a rational, sentient being, and whose actions follow the same cause/effect pattern that happens in reality, then the audience will instinctively understand the narrative structure. The more similar the hero’s thoughts and actions are to the audience’s, the more they can relate to him as if he were a real person, see themselves in him or live vicariously through him.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to write a realistic hero, because human behavior follows a predictable pattern that revolves around attempting to satisfy unfilled needs:hen your mind or body is lacking something it needs, it triggers a response in your nervous system that makes you conscious of the need you’re lacking.

  1. Your brain recalls/deduces the consequences/results of satisfying the need vs. not satisfying it.
  2. The desirability of fulfilling the need, and the undesirability of not fulfilling the need, triggers the desire/hunger/want/frustration/anxiety/internal tension to fill it.
  3. The want triggers your brain to identify a source where you can get the thing that satisfies your need.
  4. Finding the source triggers your brain to search its memory for behaviors that have worked in the past to get the desired outcome and calculate each option’s chances of success.
  5. If your brain doesn’t find a pattern of behavior that has achieved the desired outcome before, it will analyze the problem logically and deduce the behavior it expects to be the most productive towards achieving the goal, according to its unique understanding of reality.
  6. Your brain will calculate how much it expects the behavior to cost, how much need the behavior will satisfy, how likely the behavior is to achieve the desired outcome and whether or not the cost/benefit analysis adds up.
  7. If the cost/benefit analysis of performing the behavior adds up, that will trigger a state of internal tension that pushes or pulls you towards the goal.
  8. If the cost/benefit analysis of performing the behavior doesn’t add up, that will trigger a state of internal tension that pushes or pulls you away from the goal.
  9. If your brain is pushing/pulling you towards the goal, the physiological tension will drive you conscious mind to make a decision to enact the behavior.
  10. As your body executes the behavior, and after the fact, your brain will measure how productive your behavior is at achieving the desired outcome, and it will compare that to how productive it expected your behavior to be.
  11. The more the productivity level meets and exceeds your brain’s expectations, the more you experience a state of physiological and psychological arousal, which pushes/pulls you to your goal.
  12. On a conscious level, this drive is experienced as hope/belief/confidence that you can achieve your goal.
  13. As long as your actions are productive and meet the cost/benefit analysis, you will continue to enact behaviors your brain calculates to be the most productive at achieving the goal.
  14. If less your behavior’s productivity level meets the expected level of productivity, the more it will create a state of physiological and psychological tension.
  15. On a conscious level, this tension is experienced as fear, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness and anger.
  16. The more your actions are unproductive and don’t meet the cost/benefit analysis, your brain will rationalize losing hope to the point of giving up.
  17. You either give up or keep seeking the need until you satisfy it.

These are the fundamental steps of the hero’s journey, because they’re the fundamental steps of the human journey. I’ve shortened this list to 12 easier-to-understand steps in my post, “12 steps fictional characters must follow to accomplish a goal.”

If you want your hero to be truly realistic, you should give him one of the needs that real people, specifically, your target audience, has. Psychologists have many theories on how to define and organize motivational needs. For the sake of fictional character creation, you can divide them into 3 categories: Biological, Social and Personal.

BIOLOGICAL NEEDS

Your body has physical needs it must fill to survive. They may seem normal to the point of being blasé, but these needs are universal, and many profitable movies have been made about heroes who accomplish a goal because they’re trying to fill their biological needs, such as:

  • Food

In “The Donner Party,” “Ravenous,” and “Alive” the heroes eat humans to survive a brutally desolate wilderness. In “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” the heroes go on a crazy adventure in pursuit of hamburgers.

  • Water

In “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” the hero finds a water well in the Arizona desert that saves his life and then opens a watering hole business and tries to manage it. In “The Water Boy,” the hero devotes his life to dispensing water because he believes his father died of dehydration.

  • Oxygen

In “Air,” the hero must survive in an underground complex that protects him from toxic air on the earth’s surface. In “Bubble Boy,” the hero lives in a plastic bubble because he believes he has a weak immune system and unfiltered air will kill him.

  • Shelter

In “The Money Trap,” the hero wants to repair the house he sunk his life savings into. In “Poltergeist” and “House,” the hero puts up with ghosts because he put all his money into a haunted house. In “Warrior,” the hero enters a mixed martial arts contest because he can’t afford his mortgage on a teacher’s salary.

  • Elimination of waste

I don’t know of any movie where the hero’s end goal is to use the bathroom, but the need can be used to motivate or characters on minor quests or complicate their quests.

  • Regulation of body temperature

In “The Day After Tomorrow,” and every snow-themed movie, the hero tries to survive the cold. In “The Core,” “Sunshine,” and every asteroid movie, the hero attempts to save himself and others from melting.

  • Immediate survival

Every apocalypse and horror movie is based on the need to survive. So are most action and crime movies. In “Alive,” “The Revenant,” “Life of Pi” and “Castaway,” the heroes must fulfill all their biological needs to survive.

  • Long term safety

In “The Shawshank Redemption” the hero wants to get out of prison because he knows he won’t survive there forever. In “Interstellar” the hero travels to other planets in an attempt to not starve on planet Earth. In “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the hero joins the military because he has nowhere else to go and no way to make a living.

  • Sex

Every love story is basically about sex. “American Pie,” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” revolve around fulfilling the need for sex.

  • Recovery

In “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Philadelphia,” “Escape From New York,” the hero attempts to recover from something poisoning his body.

  • Money

In a modern, capitalist society, everything you need to survive and thrive is obtained with money. So the pursuit of money directly equates to being able to fulfill all your biological needs. In a movie where the hero’s goal is to make money, you almost don’t even need to explain why, but it helps if you do.

  • Emotional gratification

Human beings need to feel alive. This drives us to seek out incentives that make us feel each of our emotions. In “Beetlejuice,” Delia Deetz is motivated to seek out sadness triggers. In “Point Break,” all the characters are motivated to seek out excitement triggers. In “The Notebook,” the hero is motivated to seek out romance triggers. In “Nightcrawler,” the antihero is motivated to seek out horror triggers. In “God Bless America,” the hero is motivated to seek out anger triggers. In “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and “Office Space,” the hero is motivated to seek out tranquility triggers. In “Man on the Moon,” the hero is motivated to seek out humor triggers.

  • Relieve the fight or flight reaction

If your life is threatened, or you’re placed in an extremely stressful situation, your body will motivate you to get to safety. Almost every horror and action movie revolves around a hero trying to survive.

  • Relieve stress

The hero’s goal in “Network,” “Brazil,” and “Falling Down” is motivated by the instinctual need to relieve/escape anxiety/stress.

  • The human spirit

There is an innate drive within the human psyche to achieve, grow, overcome, master, conquer, improve ourselves regardless of whether or life is in danger. This is a common theme in sci-fi movies, particularly Star Trek.

SOCIAL NEEDS (THAT ARE A PRODUCT OF NATURE)

Thousands of years of humans evolving in tribes has ingrained instinctual social goals into our DNA that drive us to interact with society in ways that worked for our ancestors. Through generations of classical conditioning, we’ve evolved the “need” to:

  • Be accepted by our community/tribe/neighbors

Being popular in high school seems so important to us that we feel like we’d die if nobody liked us, because for most of human history, that’s exactly what would happen. This motivates us to give into peer pressure, try to impress people we don’t like and proactively manage our social status.

Most teen movies revolve around the need to acquire and maintain social status, notably “Mean Girls,”  and “Easy A.”

  • Be accepted by our friends/coworkers/acquaintances

You’re hardwired to want be accepted by humans in general, but you develop a special bond with the people you interact with most. You develop a shared history, which makes them part of your life, which makes them a part of your memory, which makes them a part of your perception of reality. Losing them would be losing a facet of your reality. Plus, you also establish social contracts with each other, where they become conditional allies in the fight for survival and growth. The more useful of a friend they are, the more you’ll value them.

Buddy movies like “The Night Before,” “The Wood,” and even “The Goonies” revolve around the hero’s need to preserve his close friendships.

  • Be accepted by our family

We have a special need to be accepted by our family. We will push ourselves beyond our limits to win our parents’ approval, and if we don’t get it, we’ll be motivated to act out dysfunctional behavior in an attempt to cope with the loss of our family’s approval.

Every family movie revolves around the need to bond with blood, notably, “Finding Nemo,” “Elf,” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

  • Be accepted by our lover

There’s are entire branches of psychology dedicated to the study of romantic relationships. We pick our lovers for a lot of reasons, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that they fulfill our needs better than the competition. That’s why humans, and the heroes in every love story, are driven to love.

  • Be accepted by our alpha

For all of human history, everyone has looked up to their parents and the alpha member of their tribe. Whatever personal goals we chose, we looked up to the people who mastered that goal. We practically worship authority, because our chances of success are the best if we mimic the masters. So our brains reward us with intoxicating hormones when we get their approval. This conditions and drives us to emulate them.

This is profoundly important. Everyone has a hero who we pick because they’re the most alpha version of the person we want to be. So if you can state exactly who your hero’s hero is, then you can explain all his behavior.

Winning his master’s approval is the hero’s driving need in “Blood Sport,” and “October Sky.”

  • Dominate

Climbing the social ladder is a general need, but throughout most of human history, there was one behavior that helped move you up the pecking order more than any other: the behavior of dominating your competition through tests of strength, skill and wisdom. This instinct is ingrained in some people so strongly they refuse to play sports just for fun.

Movies with heroes who are driven by their need to dominate include, “Alexander” and “Scarface.”

  • Submit

There can only be one alpha at a time in a tribe. Everyone tries to dominate others, and everybody wins some, but eventually 99% of the population will ensure their survival by bowing down to, bending the knee to, and serving whoever is more alpha than them. There’s safety and opportunity in serving the alphas. So our brains have been conditioned to reward us with feelings of security and pride when we submit to a higher authority.

The need to submit drives the heroes in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Jarhead” to endure Hell to submit to a higher power and feast on its benefits.

  • Achieve autonomy

Most of human history, most humans have been slaves. Despite any benefits that may come with being a slave, it limits your potential, it conflicts with the human spirit, and it usually sucks more than it doesn’t. Humanity has been struggling to achieve its independence so long, the struggle has been bred into us. As we’re worshiping and trying to emulate our parents, we’re disobeying them and rebelling against things they stand for. In all walks of life, we need a certain amount of autonomy.

The need for autonomy drives the heroes in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Orange County,” and “PCU.”

  • Satisfy social curiosity

Centuries of growing up in the wilderness has taught us to fear what’s in the shadows. At the same time we have to find out, and we have to know what’s over the horizon because we hope it fulfills out needs more. Growing up in tribes, we needed to know everyone and their business because every person was a potential threat and opportunity. So we evolved the need to metaphorically sniff everyone’s butt.

The need to satisfy social curiosity drives the hero in “The Burbs” and “Rear Window.”

  • Protect your paesano

“Paesano” is an Italian term. It basically means you value your family the most, your friends second, city-mates third, countrymen fourth, and everyone else last. Everyone can understand the concept, because it’s baked into us. We tend to perceive the human race as telescopic series of teams that divides people into insiders and outsiders whose importance is relative to their proximity to us. This is the motive for every war that has ever been fought and every movie that has been made about them.

SOCIAL NEEDS (THAT ARE PRODUCTS OF CULTURE)

A goal can be a need even if it’s not vital. As long as you’ve been formally or informally taught something is important, you’ll experience a psychological need to fulfill it, such as the need to:

  • Be successful by society’s standards/win civilization

Toddlers learn everything they know about life by mimicking adults. We grow up assuming what adults are thinking/doing is how life works. The more people you see striving for the same goal, the more it confirms the goal is important. If enough people believe in the same definition of success, it will become mainstream. You will likely grow up with a life-goal to fulfill the conditions of success as defined by the culture you were raised in.

The need to be successful drives the hero in “Things Fall Apart,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

  • Honor your culture’s rules

Your culture has written and unwritten rules for behavior. Most of them are either written down in your culture’s holy texts and law books. If you never leave your culture, and spend your whole life surrounded by the same rules, they can become so familiar you accept them on par with the law of gravity. If you believe in your culture’s rules, then following/believing/serving/enforcing them is a need.

Even if you hate the rules, you still have to follow them, because the rules are enforced by the members of your culture who drank the Kool-Aid. If you’re forced to follow a rule, then following the rule becomes a need that you’ll go to backbreaking lengths to satisfy.

The need to follow culturally relative rules drive the heroes in “The 47 Ronin” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Culture contains beliefs, traditions, customs, idiosyncrasies and arts that have nothing to do with rules. They’re just local ways of doing things. If your hero is raised to behave/react a certain way because it’s his culture, then reenacting his cultural ticks is a legitimate psychological need.

The need to follow cultural norms drives the heroes in “The God’s Must be Crazy,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

  • Fulfill civil obligations/social contracts

There are responsibilities you have to fulfill to live in society. Go to work. Mow the lawn. Pay your taxes. Obey your boss. Cooperate with the police. Fulfill the terms of contracts. Pay your debts. Honor your word. Be polite. Reciprocate favors. Pay it forward.

None of these behaviors apply to a castaway stranded alone on a desert island. These aren’t needs in nature, but if you live in civilization, you have to follow the best practices of interacting with people and learn/master the ropes of the local socioeconomic system. If you don’t pay the cost of living in civilization and honor your social contracts, the system will turn on you. So fulfilling civil obligations can be a motivating need to those who have them.

The need to fulfill a civic duty drives the heroes in “12 Angry Men” and any movie where someone owes money to the mob.

  • Achieve social justice

Our DNA compels us to value and love other people. It’s just a matter of how many you do. The human spirit compels us to overcome and conquer. The need for autonomy and self-expression compel us to change whatever restricts us. When a character has all of these needs, he’s motivated to rectify society’s flaws. To an empathetic enough person, the need to eliminate injustice is a strong as the need to eliminate a hungry bear charging at your family.

The need for social justice drives the heroes in “Milk” and “All the King’s Men.”

Personal (Product of nature)

Personal needs are one that stem from the innate drives unique to you. Some of these needs are rooted in biology, but I include them here because some biological urges have a unique application to each individual:

  • Physiology-based mental and behavioral disorders

If you have Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy, psychopathy, or any other condition in your brain that causes you to think/behave a certain way, then you have an often inescapable need to behave that way.

  • Temperament/Personality type

As professional psychologists have tried to change patients’ thoughts and behavior over the past 150+ years, their studies have shown that some aspects of our character are more changeable than others. Some are basically set and impossible to change. Furthermore, those immutable characteristics often come in sets, and everyone in society falls into some combination of these character traits. If your personality type is introverted, sensitive and logical, you have a motivating need to think and act that way.

Humanity hasn’t perfected its understanding of temperaments and personality types, but almost any personality type chart will suffice for creating a fictional character. If you endow your characters with The Big 5 personality traits or the Meyers Briggs test’s 16 personality types, people will identify with them.

  • The need to grow/improve/overcome/achieve self-actualization

The human spirit compels us to overcome life’s adversities and improve the world. We each have our own personal flame that compels us to become who we are, to flesh out our identity and discover our passions. It’s in our nature to become/express ourselves to fullest extent possible. It’s so ingrained that cults have to resort to severe psychological trauma and constant upkeep conditioning to break recruits’ will to own their individuality. The need to be/improve yourself is as real as the need for love.

PERSONAL NEEDS

  • The search for meaning

If you want to write a story that cuts to the heart of the human condition, then write a story about man’s need to find meaning/purpose in life. When the movie based on Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning,” is released in 2017, it will win an Oscar even if the film is poorly executed.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and a prisoner at Auschwitz. He observed that humans could survive the most brutal circumstances, or they could have everything they need to survive, but the more they truly believe their life is meaningless, they’ll waste away and die. We’re compelled to assign meaning to life. People have devoted their lives to religions they didn’t believe in because it satisfied their need for meaning. Every person has the same need. The hero in your story can too if you need him too.

  • Classical conditioning/force of habit

Everyone has a unique set of experiences in their memory bank. We only know how to do what we’ve experienced. After doing something enough times, it becomes second nature or force of habit. If your hero has been conditioned by people or his subjective experiences to repeat a behavior pattern, then enacting the pattern is a psychological need.

  • Beliefs/Indoctrination

Everyone has their own collection of beliefs, and they’re usually not very articulate or organized. Whatever your hero believes, regardless of why, becomes a rule he must follow.

  • Psychological-based mental and behavioral disorders

Not all mental and behavioral disorders are caused by biology. Many are caused by traumatic and toxic experiences. Even if the problem is all in your head, if you believe all germs will kill you, like the hero in “The Aviator” or “Matchstick Men,” the need for obsessive compulsive cleanliness is real to you.

  • Logic processes

There’s a skill to thinking and problem solving that most people aren’t very good at. Everybody has their own unique style. You can think logically or emotionally, visually or concretely, regularly or rarely. You can use refined, effective thinking habits like Sherlock Holmes or logical fallacies like “Brian Fantana.” It isn’t required that you define any of your hero’s thought processes. He can just act like a normal, rational person with a personality quirk or two. But if you need to motivate his actions, you can do it by saying, “This is how he thinks.”

  • Self-image/self-esteem/self-worth

Everyone has an idea of who, what and how valuable they are. Society tells us how valuable it thinks we are, and we tend to believe it. If you mature enough to break free of that trap, you’re still compelled to assign a value to yourself. You can do that by coming up with an inspirational philosophy on life or by measuring yourself against your expectations for yourself. Struggling to maintain/improve your self-image has motivated people to climb to the top of the world and run into gun fights.

  • Love, hate, hope and fear

You can justify your hero doing anything, including killing 50 people over a pet, like in “John Wick” and “Keanu” as long as you say, “The hero had an experience that caused him to love, hate, hope for or fear something.”

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