Willamette Writers – April 4 Recap: Why Your Characters Do What They Do by Jessica Morrell

On Tuesday evening, Willamette Writers hosted author and editor Jessica Morrell. Having seen Jessica present at the 2016 Willamette Writers Conference: Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 1, I can tell you she is an amazing presenter who provides an absolute wealth of information in a speck of time. She is truly a gift to the writing community and an exemplar of what I believe it means to be a good literary citizen. To decide for yourself, just check out her blog here and see how much information she shares with writers about craft, the writing life, publishing and more: Jessica Morrell

Now, if you have taken a workshop with Jessica, then you know that her presentations are bursting with information, so much so that were I to attempt to note it all down in the scant hour we had with her, I would be dealing with a hand cramp of epic proportions! So.

What I will present are the highlights from her presentation, along with a slide of some of the questions we should all be asking about our characters to ensure that each character in our novel (yup, I said “each”) has a believable and intrinsic set of motivations and goals.

First, all characters must have a reason for being in your story. They must perform some duty to the narrative arc. Jessica shared that she so often comes across characters in her clients’ novels that seem to be running around rather aimlessly, where they either don’t have goals at all, their goals are “goofy,” or the stakes of the story don’t match the goals.

Jessica made a key point that nearly all the answers of why characters do what they do links back to structure. For more on structure, take a look at Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 2 and Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 3 to read what Larry Brooks and Eric Witchey both have to say about structure and its importance in our novels – also amazing literary citizens.

Here are Jessica’s Motivation Basics. Motivations must:

  • be easy to understand; not easy to achieve
  • be shown in actions and move the story forward
  • become more complex and personal as story progresses
  • showcase the protagonist’s core traits
  • reveal the protagonist’s fears
  • exact a cost as the story progresses – your protagonist must always sacrifice something
  • create a catharsis at the climax

We also have Levels of Motivation:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • External – tangible, visible, fuels story, creates action
  • Internal
  • Personal
  • Public

As we see with the above, each motivation must have two sides, the side that is shown to the world of the story – i.e. the other characters – and the side that is available to the protagonist and reader alone. Clearly, quite a bit of tension can exist in the space between a protagonist’s apparent external motivators and his/her internal motivators actually are. Imagine this like a tight wire stretching between the two, your main character balancing as he/she walks back and forth. Whole novels have been built on the tension between what a character says they want, and what they actually want.

Now, here’s the slide with the questions you should be asking yourself about your characters’ motivations:


This covers some of the key points from Jessica’s very full presentation. And while there was quite a bit of information covered, it all boils down to this one thing: motivations – they are a must for your story to have any lift. Without a clear motivation and goal, readers don’t know what or who to root for, and if we don’t know what’s at stake, then there’s nothing at stake for us in reading it.

Again, please visit Jessica’s website through the link above. It is well worth a visit on a regular basis and she also intends to post more of the material from her Willamette Writers lecture on her site in the coming weeks.

Onwards, Writers!