A story is a character who wants something. It really can be that simple… or that difficult.
Depending on the genre, structure, and skill of the author, a character’s motivation must be clear (as in having a definitive end point when it is “achieved”) and engaging. It may also be personal, if it suits the story, but if not, it needs to be properly reasoned. If the reader cannot understand or sympathize with the reason for the character’s goal, it will feel forced—and thus not nearly so engaging.
Sometimes a story will suggest the character’s goal inherently—if they’re trapped, they will want to escape. If their child is missing, they will want to find them. Other times the goal may not be quite so simple and universal, but it is still inherent to the individual character—if their loved one is killed, they will want to avenge them.
Goals that might seem easy and universal, such as making money to survive, can actually be difficult to pull off. The challenge is that this goal must be difficult to achieve, with obstacles and conflict standing in the way, in order for there to be a story at all. If the character is only going on this difficult mission for the money, and it gets extremely difficult, then what’s to stop them from walking away and finding some other money-making endeavor? At that point, the goal has to become personal in some way, or there has to be a reason they can’t walk away.
What if you want a character with a predetermined goal that can launch them into any conflict? Maybe it’s because you’re building a series; maybe you just want a wider pool for potential stories. There are a few ways to develop a character motivation that is generic, as in not applicable to specific missions or antagonists but can be applied to multiple potential conflicts.
The first type is the specific but multifaceted motivation. This is a character who must collect 100 souls, or find all the pieces of the jewel, or gain 1000 customers. The larger goal is specific to this character and a particular situation, but the individual elements of the goal can be more varied and generic. Put them in any situation where a piece of the larger goal may be attained, and they will have solid reason to go after it, even with no personal connection or driving motivation tied to its details.
This can be slightly more generic if the character’s motivation is tied to a group rather than an individual. Similar to taking the task of “finding a jewel” and splitting it into “finding pieces of a jewel,” thus multiplying the applications of the goal, applying a character’s goal to avenge their loved one on a group rather than an individual multiplies the story’s potential. Likewise, if the character is bound to stop a group of villains rather than just one, then any time they encounter one villain in this group, they will go after them.
The second type of generic motivation is the trait-based motivation. This is a character who wants to “do good,” generally meaning that they want to stop all bad guys they come across regardless of whether they have personal stakes in their defeat. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a negative trait-based motivation, short of a character who wants to kill everyone or something… so I think this is far more common with heroic types.
A character who acts the hero out of a generic motivation rather than a specific one will respond to situations with heroic action automatically. Put them in a town with a killer and they will work to stop them; then send them to a different town with a company putting chemicals in the water and they will stop them, too. The advantage to a character like this is that you can throw them into pretty much any plot and they will rise to the occasion; their motivation will automatically become to want to stop the bad guy, without any additional persuasion needed.
The challenge to this character type is building them realistically, and determining why they behave this way. We all like to believe we are good people that want to do the right thing, but we’re not all out there hunting down criminals in the night. There’s that extra spark that makes a character actively good; sometimes it’s an internal trait, and sometimes it’s simply the opportunity that comes with a certain job or ability.
Some heroes are motivated by past suffering or a loss that may drive them to a generic vengeance calling itself “justice,” or a desire to prevent others from being victimized. Bruce Wayne/Batman fights crime out of a desire to avenge his parents and stop others from suffering the same fate. Peter Parker/Spiderman fights crime to honor his Uncle Ben and the great responsibility that comes with his great power. Olivia Benson (Law and Order: SVU) pursues justice because she is the product of a rape and cares deeply for victims.
Other heroes are driven by a desire to atone for past crimes, which can create a fascinating complexity. Tony Stark/Ironman wants to atone for the violence his weapons have wreaked on the world. Natasha Romanov/Black Widow wants to lessen the “red in her ledger” by atoning for her past as an assassin. Kenshin Himura (Rurouni Kenshin) wants to atone for his past as an assassin by never killing again and helping others.
Occasionally, heroes are raised with the specific purpose of doing good and helping others, making it a part of their identity. The Winchesters (Supernatural) were raised by a hunter and taught to save others from monsters. The Shadowhunters (The Mortal Instruments) are raised to fight demons.
Heroes can sometimes be “forced” into a generic motivation by circumstances which designate them as the only ones who can help—but they are often marked by a motivation to be normal, thus going against their desire to do good (though usually doing good triumphs). Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the fated Slayer who must fight the vampires, even if she’d rather be a normal teenager. Same with the Charmed Ones (Charmed) who fight demons while wanting to be normal women.
And then there are the heroes who are good based purely on some inherent inner goodness, which the story may never fully explain. The Doctor (Doctor Who) wants to help the worlds he visits even with no personal connection to them. Steve Rogers/Captain America wants to help his country and serve in the army because it’s the right thing to do. Many heroes who have chosen careers such as soldiers or policemen (as opposed to being raised in them as in the category above) fall into this category because their decision to choose that career, and not walk away from it, is based on this quality.
This last one is exceedingly tricky. On the one hand, it’s the easiest to develop, because you just have to show your character wanting to do good just… because. On the other hand, it’s easy for this motivation to feel fake or forced because we don’t know why the character wants to do good. Adding in a hint of motivation can help, such as to make a parent proud, because they’re the underdog and hate bullies (Steve Rogers), or because they’re the last of their kind and are lonely (the Doctor—who may actually be atoning, now that I think about it, so may belong in that category). Or the motivation can be a bit more complex (or not), such as wanting power, or the perks of an occupation (I’m thinking a bit of James Bond here, I guess).
The final type is the generic motivation of a character who takes on an occupation (either heroic or not, like a thief or an assassin). If heroic, they would fall into one of the categories above—why they chose this job and why they care about pursuing it. However, if not a heroic position (or if taken for not-heroic reasons), then the motivation for wanting the job has to be clear. If it’s money, it should either be a lot of money or the only way this character can make money (or the easiest, or something). Maybe it’s power and prestige; maybe it’s following in their family’s business. Maybe they enjoy it. As long as the reader understands the reason why this character will stick with this job even when it’s difficult (and even deadly), then the character’s motivation to perform this job will make sense.
Once you find a reason why your character is generically motivated, then you can throw them into a multitude of situations and they’ll find their goal with ease. You might only want to use this for a specific story, and you might choose to deepen that story with personal connections. But having a starting point for your character’s goal can help make the beginning of the story much stronger and more engaging.