Romance Writing Simplified: Character Motivation Comes from Backstory

Most story problems, in my experience, come down to a lack of effective character motivation. Oftentimes authors (I’ve been guilty of this myself) will make something happen because they want it to happen but fail to consider why their point-of-view character is in this situation and whether it makes sense according to that character’s established personality.

For me, the concept of character motivation really clicked when I learned that all characters (and people in real life) are motivated by what happened to them in the past.

Think about how you make decisions. Let’s say you need to buy a new car because your old one got totaled. If you were happy with your last car, you might strongly consider getting another one of the same brand. Alternatively, you might have had bad experiences with your last car and avoid that brand at all costs.

In fiction, it’s easiest to focus your character’s backstory on one central negative event that will logically affect how they deal with the current story situation.

Nearly every main character you can think of will have a dark past experience or situation that affects how they make decisions in the present story. Here are some examples:

  • Sidney Prescott in Scream: her mother’s murder
  • Liz Ortecho in Roswell, New Mexico: her sister’s death
  • Meredith Grey in Grey’s Anatomy: her toxic relationship with her mother
  • Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor: being abandoned by his parents

I could go on forever.

In romance, you’ll often see characters who’ve had bad experiences in relationships affecting how they deal with the current romance. But this isn’t the only option. All kinds of bad past experiences can affect how someone deals with romantic relationships and whatever is happening in the external plot.

Each Romance Writing Simplified post features a few hundred words on one aspect of romance writing. The goal is to present these complex ideas in the simplest terms possible.

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