Some economists say that self-interest is the primary motivator of people. The desire to have more and better is said to be what drives individuals. It’s true for some people, but money—and the opportunities it buys—is not the only human motivation. When creating characters, I often look around at the people I know well and figure out their principle motivation. It’s usually obvious.
I know quite a few people driven by love—by love of family, by sexual desire or by the lure of romance. Some sacrifice personal gain and opportunity in order to create or maintain a family. Historically it’s been women, but I know that my father made several strategic career choices that favored us as a family over his own ambitions. People willing to make judgment calls that favor family over individual status can make interesting characters in fiction. They can be noble, but they can also be tedious martyrs. It depends on how they discuss their sacrifices. My dad did not talk about his.
I think we’ve all met someone driven by sex or romance. It could be the guy who loves the chase, but can’t handle the day-to-day reality of long-term relationships. It could also be the woman running from man-to-man, never finding the Prince Charming (or Mr. Darcy) of her dreams. I know a married woman who had an affair with a man very much like her husband. Why would she do that? Simple, he was like her husband at the beginning of their romance—devoted to and focused on her! In fiction, the irony of her infidelity makes for great comedy. In real life, it’s not very funny.
Glory—status, celebrity and power—is the classic hubris of Greek mythology. There is a great deal of money in politics, but the politicians themselves aren’t necessarily wealthy. They seek power, status as leaders, and to be celebrated—in short, they want GLORY. Glory drives some fabulous characters in fiction!
Less obvious motivations that I enjoy in fiction include the desire to experience and the need to take risks. Experience people can be sensualists. I know a woman who loves food and a man who loves wine. They make life decisions based primarily on the opportunity for sensuous taste experiences. Risk takers are speed junkies, they love dangerous sports, and they push every available envelope in order to “feel alive.” There are a lot of risk takers and experience driven people in fiction. They are interesting people.
Me? I’m motivated by stories and storytelling. There’s an element of experience driven plans in my make-up, but it’s always the experience in retelling, the experience as research for stories, the experience as a way to meet interesting people, that motivates me. What drives you?