I wanted to take a moment to explore the idea of motive in a character’s life, in any story.
I constantly see stories where the character has a single motive in their lives. This motive becomes a dominant force, acting as a supernatural guide to every thought, action and purpose in a character’s life.
The characters usually seem incredibly lucid concerning their need for revenge, acceptance, love, greed, etc.
It bothers me that most characters seem to have a motive completely resident in a single human emotion, vice or virtue. This bothers me because there are few humans on this planet with such a singular modus and vision concerning their lives.
We don’t know who we are and why we do what we do
The big joke with my generation is that we never know when we are adults, because when we reach the age of our 20s and 30s, we realize the adults in our lives growing up were just as scared, disillusioned and frustrated as we are. We realize there is no rule book concerning our destinies and it really is up to us to figure it out and decide where we want to go with life.
Considering the bulk of humanity deals with existential issues on a daily basis, and that sometimes our motives can change in light of new information and environmental changes, it is not wise to create characters in stories with such singular motives.
That said, I do recognize that for millennia, stories with singular characters have been guiding forces in societal and moral (individual and corporate) navigations of human belief. Stories are meant to inspire us, to encourage and amaze us. They are still entertaining, but in ways that cause us to ponder our views on issues, places and people.
Comedy vs. Drama
If you’re writing a story with a singular character that affects the overall story, then it’s perfectly acceptable. In allegory, it’s even more acceptable. In romance and comedy, characters with singular motives are appropriate and perfectly fine. In many ways, a complex character can actually take away from the plot progression and main characters. I think creating a character specific to the genre that you’re writing for is always the best practice.
However, if you’re writing an intricate or complex story, singular motives in characters can be a detriment. The stage of your story is set by the genre and a level of expectation that no writer can ignore or get around. If the story is set in a science fiction universe, there is a level of complexity to the story that is expected.
There is a level of comedic complexity and drama simplicity that is expected in Comedy stories. If a comedy is written with bland development and timing but complex characters, the viewer/reader will quickly produce a knee-jerk negative reaction. However if the comedic timing is perfect and the characters simple in science fiction, the viewer/reader will wonder if they’re reading science fiction at all.
It’s all chemistry
Writing a story is like an equation. If you remember high school chemistry, an equation for certain reactions must be balanced out. The structure of a story is just like that. The motive of a character can single-handedly grab a reader and pull them in, or push them away.
In regards to a motive of characters residing within a dramatic story, I would caution balance in motive creation. If the character’s motive is TOO complex up front, it may confuse the reader. If it’s too simple, it may push the reader away. Each of us has more than one goal in life, but most of those goals are intertwined with one another. A massive change in environment and circumstances can alter those goals, and thus motives. Many times, goals and motives may not be consciously recognized.
If your character has at least one or two motives they do not consciously recognize, it’s a swath of invisible ink that the reader can decipher. However any and all motives in full complexity must be fed to the reader slowly. If they have complex goals, it’s a good idea to feed those goals to the reader in an organic progression that logically makes sense to them.
Take it from ‘Frozen’
Frozen is a good example of this. Elsa was abused as a child, and then ‘comes into her own’ but with the consequence of hurting those far and wide, and it’s only in learning that her abilities can hurt as well as heal, does she grow as a person and her motives change drastically. Elsa’s motives change about three times in Frozen. At first, her goals center around staying hidden. She then alters those motives when she ‘comes out’ as a character.
However her motives change a third time when new information is presented to her (albeit with her resistance). She then learns that with the progression of growth as a character, motive must change. She is no longer singularly concerned about being herself, and the motive of hiding is cast aside. However she now has two driving forces in her life. The drive to be herself as well as be kind and cautious to those who she could potentially hurt BY being herself. This is a perfect example of character growth with the resulting change in motive.
Knowing the genre of your universe and the general expectations of the readers of that genre can be a wonderful compass by which to steer your characters’ motives.