Meetup 145: Character Motivation in Fiction


In his book, Writing Popular Fiction, bestselling author Dean Koontz lists seven possible character motivations in fiction:

  1. Love
  2. Curiosity
  3. Self-preservation
  4. Greed
  5. Self-discovery
  6. Duty
  7. Revenge

Sometimes you will have characters that are driven by a combination of the above listed motivations, but for the vast majority of fiction that we will read and write, this should do. In our Write Club session last weekend, Pavan brought up this topic and gave us a couple of exercises. The aim is to build a scene in which the character starts off with a ‘simple’ motivation, and then as we go deeper into it, reveal a certain complexity.

So a private detective, who would generally be driven by curiosity and duty (like Hercule Poirot), could also be acting out of greed (for financial gain or for fame). The hero of a thriller story, who begins in a mad rush for self-preservation, could find on deeper scratching that he’s also being goaded on by a thirst for revenge. A lover may find that his intentions were not so pure as he first imagined. And so on.

There were a bunch of specific prompts that were given out to warm up our creative muscles, but I’m not giving them out here. The more important thing, I think, is to understand the purpose of the exercise.


My prompt: A scene involving a private detective who gets employed by a mafia don whose wife is missing. Hopefully you will find that the main character’s motivations become ‘deeper’ and more layered as the scene progresses.

I wake up at my desk, smelling of Mansion House. There’s someone knocking on the door. Not the banging of the fist that you would expect from the common folk. This is crisp, as though the guy’s using the tip of a cane. Or his knuckles. Probably has a monocle. Suited up. From the gap under the door a tiny whiff of cigar smoke floats in. Expensive cigars.

There’s a pause. Then another knock. I finish off last night’s grub, run a hand through my prickly beard. If Anita had been alive, she would have wanted me to shave. ‘You look like shit,’ she would have said. Well. I do. No denying that. As the stuff slides down my throat, my stomach rumbles. A shadow moves across the door. A third knock, this one more frantic.

‘Come in,’ I say. The knob turns, and in walks Bade Bhai. Even with bees buzzing inside my head I sit up straight. This is not just another rich asshole. He’s the asshole of all assholes. He flicks the cigar into the corner. Lets the door slide shut. After the click, he waits for a moment. Holds his gaze. Blinks. Then smiles. It’s the smile I’ve seen on the faces of thieves, child molesters, murderers, politicians. A smile of love. Compassion. Brotherhood.

‘Pavan ji, good morning!’ he says, even though it’s late evening. ‘I have some work for you.’

I want to tell him I’m retired. Even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t work for someone like him. But with people like Bade Bhai, you either say yes at the first instance, or you say yes after he’s beaten you into a pulp. So I say, ‘Yes.’

He takes my chair. Crosses his legs. His emerald ring catches a beam of the streetlight and glints. One of his front teeth is made of gold. ‘My wife,’ he says, and stops. In his eye I see a flash of hesitation – or is it fear?

What can I say? Even mafia dons fear their women. I offer him a cigarette. To show him I understood. He shakes his head. Probably not expensive enough for him.

‘My wife is missing,’ he says. Not a smidgen of love in his voice. His eyes have that liquid ruthlessness about them. ‘She ran away with dosh worth fifty crores.’ His right cheek twitches as he says this. If you want to hurt a drug peddlar – really kick-him-in-the-balls hurt – you steal his dope. Fifty crores – heck, this guy would gouge his mother’s eyes out for a couple of pennies.

‘Look,’ I say, ‘I don’t know who sent you to me. I’ve been out of business -‘

He smiles, wide this time. His big canines twinkle like stars. ‘I’m not used to hearing the word ‘no’, Mr Nair.’

‘But ‘no’ is exactly what I have to say.’ I pick up my cigarette packet. My fingers are shaking. ‘I don’t want to bring your wife back to you.’ She has fifty crores and her freedom. Let her be, I think yo myself.

‘I don’t want you to bring my wife to me.’ Bade Bhai looked lovingly at his emerald ring. ‘I want you to find her and kill her.’

I let out a long breath. I entwine my fingers to stop them from shaking. But he sees it and grins. ‘I don’t do that work any more.’ I think of Anita’s final scream, the look of horror on her face. The dagger in my hand. The spots of blood on my shirt. She had already died by the time I’d rushed to her and gathered her in my arms. She had taken no final oath from me. But she would asked me to give up killing. Yes. She would have.

‘No,’ I say again. I lick my lips and taste salt. ‘I won’t.’

‘They say there’s none as good as you.’ He reaches into his coat pocket and brings out a photograph. Places it on the table face down. ‘In case you change your mnd.’

‘I won’t.’

He turns it over and holds it in front of him, so that I can see. The drone in my head goes quiet for a second. The colour of the eyes was different. They were light brown, almost like sand. Anita’s were coal black. But everything else – the pout, the mole under the right eye, the waves in the hair, the fingernails – everything else…questions flew into my head one after the other. Did I not see Anita die in my arms? Did I send not her body myself to Kishanpur for the funeral? When did Bade Bhai get married? All these months I’d heard of this mysterious woman who bowled over the mafia don, and I’d never bothered to check who it was. Could it be her? Or did she have a long lost twin sister?

Bade Bhai is looking at me with a frown, his head tilted toward his right shoulder. ‘So?’ he said, letting the picture drop.

And I said, ‘I will do it.’ My voice sounds dead to my own ears.

Image Courtesy: The Write Practice


  1. MJ Aravind says:

    I am sorry, I missed the session. Regards, Aravind MJ


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