If writers need character motivation, then consult the Buddha
When you first start writing, it usually takes a while to understand that, in the fictional world you’re creating, you are God. You can create any world your imagination and talents allow. Want blue creatures shaped like a fireplug, living in a world shaped like a fire extinguisher? If you’re a good enough writer, you can do that. Want to create a world where William the Conqueror did not defeat Harold, so the course of European history was changed? Go to it. As the creator of your fictional world, you can do it all.
There is a problem with this. With this kind of power, too often writers have characters do things that help the plot with an action not explained by the character’s motivation. The character becomes a one-dimensional paper puppet, acting totally at the whim of the author. Even if you are writing about blue fireplugs, readers still like to have an emotional grounding that allows them to understand a character’s motivation. Writers have to write about characters motivated by more than the author’s need for something to happen that advances the story.
I’ve found that a terrific source of character motivation is the Buddha. Yes, that Buddha.
Supposedly, the Buddha said all human misery is caused by just three things.
The first is greed.
Greed is a motivation everyone can understand because we’ve all observed it in life. We find it totally believable that a greedy character might fill his/her pockets with gold coins, even if they will have to swim to save their lives. Countless news stories have murders and betrayals, all motivated by greed and the lust for money.
Greed extends far beyond money, however. A character can be greedy for fame, power, adulation, recognition, or even love. An insatiable desire for more, even when it appears a character has enough of something, is a motivation a reader can accept.
I don’t want to mix my religions here, but I’ve always thought Greed is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins because there is no end to Greed. Because of this, even rich and successful characters can be portrayed as acting badly because of their greed.
The Buddha said the second cause of misery is anger.
This is another motivation we’ve seen in life. Anger makes people destroy things, including other people. Anger can make the irrational suddenly seem like a proper course of action. Anger is a type of insanity that can make a character act in an insane way.
Anger can be suddenly triggered or it can be something simmering for a long time. Because of this, anger is a great motivation for any character, as long as you’ve prepared the reader to accept that a character can be sparked by anger.
Buddha said the third cause of human misery is folly.
As with the first two, folly is something everyone has seen (although we don’t always recognize folly immediately). Most people have been gripped by folly themselves. Some kinds of love can be folly. Political partisanship is often a folly. A belief in the infallibility of our own judgment is a folly. In fact, human belief and a tendency to believe in folly are probably two sides of the same coin.
Greed. Anger. Folly.
It’s easy for any writer to extract an entire career’s worth of character motivation just armed with these three things. There are other motivations out there, but these three are so basic and ubiquitous that it hardly seems worth it to try and explain other motivations to a reader.
So the next time you need to motivate a character, check the words of the Buddha!