Motivation and storytelling

Some invented vocabulary that applies to both characters and teams

July 23, 2021

Note: It's very likely that there's already academic language for some concept very similar this. I am currently making a conscious effort not to use academic vocabulary in subjects I am not an acadamician.

Here’s a small mental tool that is useful for storytelling and roleplaying but also for moral philosophy and team morale:

Any agent in the world must have some driving motivation, or else it won’t do anything at all.

That agent might be you, or a character in a story, or a team of people working together. In this respect “real” agents and fictional ones are no different; “you” are a character you create each day.

Some agent motivations are quite specific: “I want tacos”, “I want revenge on the man that killed my pa”, “We want to plant a million trees”.

If you concentrate too hard on a specific motivation, much of what goes on around you may seem irrelevant; 99% of life is moving you neither towards nor away from tacos. It’s mostly taco-neutral stuff happening out there. Being blinded to the opportunities around you as a person or as a team can be very limiting; in writing or improvising a character, it can be totally damning.

A global motivation is one that almost always applies, no matter the situation. “I want to stimulate my mind and body with pleasurable physical experiences” is a mouthful, but it can lead not only to tacos but also ski trips and walks in the woods and all sorts of other things. In any given situation, a hedonist with that motivation can declare a preference for one course of action over another.

A character who wants eye-for-an-eye fairness in all things will want to kill the man who killed their pa, but will also have urgent reasons to act in situations that have no relation to their father.

Some made-up vocabulary:

  • A specific (or local) motivation only offers guidance in a limited set of circumstances.
  • A general (or global) motivation offers guidance in almost any set of circumstances.

This is a spectrum, obviously. But dichotomies are useful tools for thinking if they offer interesting vocabulary, as long as I am careful not to stab myself with them. When writing a character, improvising a scene, plumbing your own moral depths, or assembling a team, if you seek out a global motivation, then you will be able to see reason for action even in unforeseen circumstances.

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