Character motivation is an important part of any novel. A character’s motivations, desires, hopes, and dreams will influence the decisions they make and the path they follow throughout the course of the story. An effective way to build conflict and tension is to have two characters with conflicting desires. Their opposing needs or wants will lead to them struggling against each other, and that struggle will fuel your plot.
Some basic examples of opposing motivations include a criminal who wants to break the law vs a cop who wants the law enforced, a parent who wants control vs a child who wants freedom, or an evil wizard who wants to conquer the world vs a hero who wants to keep it free. The motivations you choose can be more complex and layered than these, but the basic formula is there.
What do you do, however, when the antagonist isn’t human? Some types of stories are based on a conflict of man vs beast or man vs nature. In those cases, sometimes it can seem like there is no opposing motivation, unless you count a hungry animal who wants to eat someone vs someone who (naturally) doesn’t want to be eaten. This motivation can work quite well, and plenty of classic works have been based on it. For example, I recently read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The two main conflicts in that book were the old man who wanted to catch a fish vs the fish that did not wish to be caught, and later, the old man who wanted to get his fish home safely vs the sharks who wanted to eat that fish. The tension lasted good and long, and there was plenty of depth, even when the fish and sharks were motivated purely by animal instincts.
But what if you have a more monstrous beast? A dragon, werewolf, or other mythological or supernatural creature can have a more complex mind than a normal animal. Yet in some stories, writers tend to keep their motivations as simple as those of a lesser animal. I mentioned this in a blog post awhile back when I was discussing how much I wish alien invasion stories had stronger motivations. For example the aliens in Independence Day show up and try to destroy humanity for no better reason than “they’re evil and want to take all of our resources.” That was pretty flimsy motivation. After all, if the aliens really needed resources, there’s plenty of uninhabited worlds they could have gone to in order to strip-mine everything they wanted without having to worry about fighting the native inhabitants. In the long run, the “we’re evil, prepare to die” motivation is a sign of an undeveloped antagonist and/or lazy writing.
There are some other examples I’ve seen recently where a villain lacks sufficient motivation. I recently started re-watching Star Trek: Voyager. The season 2 episode “Persistence of Vision” involves an alien who attacks the ship and uses telepathic abilities to cause the crew to hallucinate and go into a type of telepathically-induced comas. When the villain is defeated and Captain Janeway asks why he did it, his flimsy and poorly-thought-out answer was, “Because I can.”
A story can have a lot more meaning if the villain’s motivations have more weight behind them. And the motivation doesn’t always need to be elaborate in order to be effective. A good example of this is the classic tale Beowulf. In the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the monster Grendel, which attacks the king’s feast hall and kills dozens of men. However, the story didn’t just have Grendel attack because “he’s evil, prepare to die.” Instead, a simple yet effective motivation is used:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of the poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters ; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.
So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world. Grendel was the name of this grim demon, haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.
So instead of Grendel being a random rampaging beast, he’s specifically a demon cursed by God, who is thrown into a rampage when he hears the king’s men singing God’s praises. That makes Grendel’s rampage a more personal one, and adds a tone of religious significance. The religious side of Beowulf can be seen throughout the story with a number of other biblical references, and Beowulf himself could be interpreted as being not just a human hero, but also as a soldier of God:
Beowulf, that prince of goodness, proudly asserted: “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel. So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might. He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore, for either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.”
What makes this declaration by Beowulf especially interesting and important is that it later turns out that Grendel is magically protected against all forged weapons. Beowulf declared that he would face Grendel in a fair fight with no weapons and trust in God to guide him to victory, and choosing not to bring a weapon is what led to his victory.
So you can see here how the monster’s motivation (rage against religious celebration) and the hero’s motivation (wanting God to grant him victory over the beast) actually match up thematically. This shows that a simple thing like giving the monster a meaningful motivation can lead to a more elaborate and dynamic story. It’s no wonder that Beowulf is a classic.
This is something I give a lot of thought to in my writing. Adding extra layers like this can deepen the conflict and make things far more interesting. So next time you have a beast, monster, dragon, or demon in your story, take a step back and ask yourself: “What does this monster really want?”