Like people characters need motivations, if a character has no motivation then they appear flat and unrealistic. We also have to remember that a character’s motivation might not be the one they are presenting to the world. A reoccurring one in literature is the person apparently motivated by love but secretly motivated by money or the murderer who masquerades as an innocent. As with all elements of character we have to consider the deeper layer, not simply the surface. This might sound intimidating but as I keep saying we can use our first draft to work out a lot of these elements. Sometimes we might even begin a story with no clear idea of who the antagonist is until we reach a point in the story that a villain appears with a motivation. Similarly we might not have a clear idea of our characters’ motivations until we’ve developed them more as we write.
We may have an idea for a story about a protagonist who saves the world from disaster but we don’t know why they do. We could begin with the basic motivation that it’s ‘the right thing to do’, however people’s motivations are rarely that simple. Perhaps something happened in the past that makes them feel responsible for the present situation, or they think they are the only one who can solve it, or it is actually their job to solve the problem. There are a myriad of reasons why a character might do what they do but readers are rarely satisfied purely by the idea that it’s the right thing to do because it seems too simplistic. People struggle with the notion that anyone is that good so even if their primary motive is that they think they are doing the right thing there might be more to the story.
Even if their motive really is a stalwart belief that what they are doing is right it doesn’t mean that everything they do is motivated by this. For instance our protagonist might have an ego so although they want to save the world for the right reasons they interact with other characters poorly because they think they’re always right. Alternatively their ‘right reasons’ might be linked to a sense of duty and their sense of duty gets in the way of other things. They may disagree with other characters because they are willing to risk someone’s life because it is their duty but the other characters don’t see a valid reason to risk a life. And, of course, there is also the possibility that although they firmly believe what they are doing is right it doesn’t mean it is.
My point is that our characters’ motives should reflect real people and not be as simple as right and wrong. A satisfying character that the reader wants to follow is complex and encounters challenges that can be caused by their motives or that are complicated by their motives. Once again when we are building our characters we need to look deeply are who we think they are and their pasts to determine complex and believable motives for them and give them moral quandaries and quirks that make them individual.