How to create a well motivated character

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about my annoyance with RPG characters that are purely motivated by money. Today, I’m going to expand on that a little by talking about character motivations in general.
When creating a character in any roleplaying game, one of the most important considerations is your character’s motivations. These are important because they are what drives your character to take action within the game and taking action is what moves the game along. They are also one of the few things that are entirely within your control. Other aspects of character creation are either out of your control (dice rolls, etc…) or within your control, but limited by the mechanics of the system (skills, feats, etc…); your character’s motivations, on the other hand, can be absolutely anything you want and therefore you are entirely responsible for them. This means the excuse that many players use for being disruptive or obstructive in a game, “What? It’s what my character would do!”, holds no water at all because, while that might be true, they were the one who gave the character those motivations in the first place.

With this in mind, here are my thoughts on coming up with good character motivations. I tend to class motivations along two axes:

Simple/Complex
I was initially going to call these boring/interesting, but that’s probably a little unfair; not all simple motivations are boring, though boring ones do certainly exist. Obviously this is not binary, but is a sliding scale from very simple motivations (e.g. money) to very complex motivations (e.g. building a reputation as a warrior, so that you’ll be invited to join the king’s guard, giving you access to their historical records, so that you can find some specific piece of information, which you’ll use to blackmail someone else, and so on…). The only real consideration here is whether simple or complex motivations are most appropriate for the game you’re playing; overly involved motivations are possibly less appropriate for a comedic one-shot, for example.

Helpful/unhelpful
This is by far the more important axis. While there is nothing inherently good or bad about simple or complex motivations, unhelpful motivations are clearly not a good thing. Now, different people may have different ideas about what constitutes a helpful motivation, but for me it is fairly simple; helpful motivations give your character an excuse to do things, while unhelpful motivations give him an excuse not to.
Taking the motivation of money, which triggered this entire discussion; this is not a helpful motivation, as the baseline response to an adventure hook is, “Not unless I’m being paid” (an example of a motivation being an excuse not to do something). This forces the DM to add something extra (payment) that may not be appropriate (the villagers have no money) just to get you to play the game (which, it should be noted, is something you want to do).
One of the players in my new Numenera campaign has a perfect example of a helpful motivation. His character is unknowingly host to an alien parasite that exists purely to gather information; it has actually re-written his DNA to increase his sense of wanderlust, so that he will see more stuff before he dies and the alien moves on. Not only is this an awesome background for a character, it really helps me out as the GM because he needs no badgering to accept plot hooks; his character’s default reaction is to get involved.

Now, obviously there is a lot of flexibility here, even within the ideas I’ve laid out above. I’m certainly not saying that every character needs to be willing to dive into any adventure without prompting. It’s perfectly possible , for example, to create a motivation that looks unhelpful on the surface (my character only cares about money), but which has backdoors that can be used to work around it (he has a secret soft spot for children). The overall message I’m trying to get across is that it’s the GM’s job to provide plot hooks, but it’s the players’ job to ensure their characters are willing to take the bait… otherwise, why turn up at all?

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