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Writing a Good Motive For Apathetic Characters 

Recently @rosemarymilktea and I were discussing how create a sense of urgency for immortal characters to complete goals. In fiction, a lot of immortals are written as apathetic or aloof which makes giving them motivation difficult; not to mention that they have forever to complete a task. Motivation isn’t only a problem when writing immortals, but all apathetic characters, especially those who are selfish and detached from the world around them.

I gave my immortal protag motivation by: 1. Giving her attachments that ground her to the world, 2. Using her failures and past cruelty to manipulate and guilt trip her, and 3. Making her believe she’s responsible for the welfare of those she cares about.

Specifically, I make goals urgent to characters by raising the stakes, adding a time limit, and making it personal.

1. Give Your Character Attachments

  • Does you character have friends and family? If they not, this is a great opportunity to use the Found Family Trope. Have your indifferent character decide to tolerate spending time with others, only to realize too late that they might think of them as dear friends. Now that they have someone to care about, they will do favors for them. The lengths a character will go for their friends is directly proportional to their attachment to them.
  • Give them objects or places that have sentimental value, and then destroy it, or dangle it over their head, just out of reach. If you destroy it, it’s an instant quest for revenge! If not, add a time limit until that thing is lost forever.
  • Anything your character loves, whether alive or not, can be used as motivation when their existence is threatened.

2. Use Their Conscience Against Them

  • Have your character mess up. Real bad. 
  • Let them watch someone die of disease as they hold the antidote in their hands. Have them kill an innocent because they fear they may share a secret your character wants hidden. Did they break a promise that ended badly for whom they didn’t keep their word to? Write a scene where the consequences of their actions come back to haunt them, whether it be months, years, or decades later.
  • Then let them regret, and promise themselves ‘never again’. Guilt is a powerful force. It eats at you, sometimes long after you’ve righted your wrongs. The worse your character messes up, the better the guilt trip.
  • Tip: another character knowing of their mistakes can lead to excellent blackmail.

3. Hold Them Responsible For Their (In)Actions

  • Maybe your character’s a Chosen One of sorts, and only their magic, expertise, or knowledge can save the world. Sounds cliche, but if they’re the only one that can stop the Great Evil, that puts pressure on your character to get it done. Not to mention, if they don’t succeed, everything bad that occurs afterward is indirectly their fault.
  • If your character believes that someone else can save the world/fight the dragon/kill the villain, then they won’t. The character must understand that they hold responsibility for whatever happens. No one else can do this for them.
  • If your character is exceptionally selfish, making their motivations personal is the best way to spur them to action. Offer them a reward. Put their life on the line. Maybe they don’t feel remorse for being the cause of another’s death, but if a selfish character cares about one thing, it’s themself. They need to face an antagonistic force that threatens them specifically.

Remember! Apathy is the black hole to motivation. Finding what your character cares about is the most important thing if you want an interesting character with goals.

~Eris

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Drop me an ask if you have questions about character motivation 🙂

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