The Motive Made Me Do It!

Motives matter in life—and even more in mystery fiction. Creating a credible motive for a character’s actions is at the heart of a good story. It’s not enough to say “he was crazy” or “she was overcome by passion”—even the wildest backstory needs a core of sincerity and reason. Real life can be, and sometimes is, completely irrational, but fiction requires the motives and actions of characters to make sense.

In a good mystery, motive is an essential element of the crime. Although a reasonable motive is not required to prosecute a crime in court, a story that hangs together, a motive that justifies the character’s actions—at least on some elementary level—makes the story compelling. When mystery writers fail to provide a motive, it’s hard to make the reader care.

Rotten childhoods, blackmail-worthy secrets, greed and lust crop up all over mysteries. Love—unrequited, mistaken, misguided, twisted or otherwise problematic—is an even more powerful source of backstory motives. A soured romance leading to an obsession is a popular cliché in mystery fiction. I just read yet another romantic suspense novel that relied on that formulaic motive.

Agatha Christie was famous for exploiting the power of secrets in her many novels and short stories. Her rational people kill to protect their secrets and her blackmailers risk murderous revenge in classic stories.

Coming up with original motives is a huge challenge and that may be why storytellers return to familiar territory when it comes to WHY even if the WHO and HOW are completely new. Drawing from true crime only goes so far because in real life people don’t always have motives that justify their actions.

Mark Twain wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”


  1. Motive can be so tricky. Granted, I haven’t work on my novel for ages, but the antagonist’s motives are something I still continue to grapple with. Too often, motives can come across as corny. I hope to avoid that when all is said and done.

    • Candy Korman

      A “corny” motive might also be a classic that people readily understand and might even share with the protagonist. A parent who kills the family friend/child molester; the prosecutor turned avenging angel; and the Robin Hood justification for a financial crime, all fit into this “classic motive” category. The trick is create a character and/or circumstance that raises the level or alters the reader’s perception of a familiar motive.

      My current novel-in-progress is a mystery that asks Who did this and why? of many characters, as there are different questionable actions that come out of familiar motives. It’s becoming a juggling act for me.

      I hope you get back to your novel. Since I’m a fan of your short stories, I’m curious about where you’ll go with a longer work of fiction.

  2. I’m not a mystery writer but motive, psychological motive, features high on my list of necessary story elements. The ‘why’ has to feel organic rather than imposed, i.e. a cold, uncaring type of character who kills for passion will not feel very convincing. So for me, motive and personality have to go hand in hand somehow.

    • Candy Korman

      The motive and the character have to match—unless there’s a secret life in the mix. Motives in science fiction, romance, adventure, family sagas, etc. my be different and, perhaps, more subtle than the kind of motives that lead to murders, but they still have to be credible. The motive for the pioneer on a new planet has to fit his/her pioneer spirit. Of course when you are creating alien creatures (and you have) it must be extra challenging as other-than-human feelings would result in other-than-human motives for other-than-human actions and consequences.

      Is this why so many aliens in science fiction are human-like? Um….