MAC: Motivation, Action, Consequence When Creating Characters

I am always eager to get characters on the page quickly, without fuss, without muss, and doing something immediately. Not like, sitting around, flicking their genitals and staring at the Travertine tile reminiscing about that time the exposition exposited about that other exposition, but actually up and about. Active. Interacting with the world — exerting will — with agency.

This was my motivation for writing an earlier post about creating kick-ass characters.

So, I figured I’d share another one of the little things I keep in mind when flinging characters into the gnashing hell-jaws of my monster machine — er, I mean, “into the story.”

This is: MAC.




It goes like this:


A character has a need. A want. A major motherfucking desire. This isn’t just a small-time yeah, maybe I want that. This is something they are motivated to achieve. Motivated as in: moved to act. This isn’t, “I want those new Zesty Bold Pecan Habanero Diapercrisp Doritos I keep hearing about.” This is: killing someone. Falling in love. Hiding a body. Proving one’s innocence. Blowing up a planet. This is something that would change the character’s life for good or bad. Not just revenge, but a specific revenge on a particular sonofabitch.

The character is driven.


The character takes action. They are forced by their want/need/desire to do something. Not talk about it. Not just turd around and ruminate upon it. They are pushed to drastic, compelling, fascinating action. They violate their own status quo. They do something they wouldn’t normally do. They push. Take risks. This isn’t like, putting money in a parking meter. This is betting it all. This is putting every last bit of oneself on the line to enact a fantasy.

This doesn’t have to be just one action. It can be several — a whole chain of them. A plan. A scheme. A sequence. A plot in and of itself. (And if you’re catching a whiff that this is how plot is actually made — well, you ain’t wrong about that.)


As they say, actions have consequences. Push down on one bubble, another pops up. That whole scientific principle of ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction?’ True for stories. (Though I’d argue that you could, in the service of brevity, shorten it to every action has a reaction.)


That sucks, though. You’re a storyteller. ‘Consequence’ is a word with great, well, consequence. It’s heavy. Foreboding and forbidding. It could just as easily be written as: and then shit happens because you accidentally fucked up in dogged pursuit of your desires. Character needs money for his baby girl’s heart transplant (motivation) so he robs a bank to get the money (action) and, well, c’mon, robbing banks usually comes with an unholy host of complications, right? Dead guard. Cops outside. No money in the vault. Hostages. Bill Murray in a clown costume.

Lots of potential conflicts and complications.

Both also great ‘c’ words that could sub-out for Consequence, should you so choose.

(Unlike “cock-waffle.” That gets us no closer to illumination, you cad.)

That Gets You Started

This is just a very, very simple way to get characters on the page — characters who want things and are willing to pursue their wants with diligence and fervor. Characters who are vulnerable to the truest, most vile antagonist of them all: you, the evil-ass storyteller.

(“And I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling characters!” — every good storyteller ever, unmasked for the monster that they are.)

You may again notice that, from this simple-yet-vital springboard, sweet plot waters flow.

It’s true. Plot is easily and competently built from even a single character’s chain of motivation, action, and consequence. Want shit. Do shit. Fuck up shit. Boom, plot.

Except, here’s a secret.

Shhh, A Secret

Characters with divergent motivations and actions intersect.

And this intersection creates drama.

Darth Vader wants to bolster the Empire and hunt down that pesky princess who keeps stealing his plans and giving them to warbling droids. Luke Skywalker wants to get the fuck off his sandy cat-turd of a planet and with the help of one such warbling droid undertakes a mission to save the very princess that Darth Vader captured. When these two characters intersect, it creates drama — drama that is further fueled by the lie of Vader killing Luke’s father and the truth of Vader being Luke’s father. Each character is dicking up the other character’s plans.

Think about how multiple characters want different things.

Or sometimes want the same things, but demand different actions.

Or how the consequences of one character’s actions push and pull on the life of another character.

These three simple building blocks are bricks.

And sometimes characters fling these bricks at each other’s heads.

Sometimes on purpose.

Sometimes accidentally.

But drama is born as a result.

And in that conflict and that drama:


*drops mic*

*mic crushes a pretty butterfly*



28 responses to “MAC: Motivation, Action, Consequence When Creating Characters”

  1. Fantastic post! Reminds me of the concept of Goal / Motivation / Conflict (GMC, which no longer has only to do with cars) in which each character has external and internal goals (e.g., “Mark wants to move his wife Linda to Minnesota …”) and certain motivations (“… because Linda has cancer and the Mayo Clinic may be the only place to get help for her …”) and then runs into problems meeting those goals (“… but he can’t find another job in his field.”)

    Thank you!

    • See, that’s a good one, too — here I obviously conflate the GOAL and the MOTIVATION, and the one thing I think is (personally) important is to include that seed of “action” — meaning, the character is literally doing something to achieve the goal and to fulfill the motivation. But: hell yeah.

  2. Interesting. I’m only in the planning stage of my first attempt at writing a novel, and I’ve already struggled with planning a character that is interestingly vulnerable, yet capable and driven enough to undertake definite action.

    The intersection of motivations is a great point too – and something else I need to focus on.

    Back to work.

  3. As usual, succinct and sound advice. Also, “turd around” is my new favorite phrase and I plan to use it in casual conversation today.

  4. Bill Murray in a clown suit. Based on my love of Bill Murray and my unadulterated fear/hatred of clowns, that sentence is packed with drama.

    As I am learning this trade, I am struggling to find a balance. Being a ‘pantser’ I often worry about creating the right amount of, well everything. But I guess if I put a tiny bit of foresight into my work i can still be a panster, right?
    Just dont let me become a ‘plotter’!!

  5. OMG spoiler alert you totally just ruined Star Wars for me.

    I was only mad until I got to the end part about the butterfly and LOLed.

    You’re like the cool teacher in high school, the one everyone wanted because he/she made learning fun.

  6. Great post, Chuck! I was a little worried about my own w-i-p for a while as I read this, because my main character is currently NOT wanting to do something and that seemed to be going against the wisdom of what you were saying. But then I got to the part about other characters screwing things up by wanting to do something potentially dumb and wanting everyone to do it THEIR way, and I realised that’s what’s going on with my MC and a supporting character so all is well again.

    I wish I had a little mini-version of you that could fit on my computer desk and yell at me periodically (in your purely motivational fashion, of course.)

  7. “staring at the Travertine tile reminiscing about that time the exposition exposited about that other exposition”

    This is a startlingly accurate description of the book I was trying to read yesterday. There was actually Travertine tile involved, though it was part of the exposition; the floor, we learned–at length–had been redone since then.

    (Also, awesome post. You’ve got me thinking about some problematic secondary characters who need some more of this.)

  8. That so so true and the more characters the writer has the more of an unholy mess happens if they fuck this up… Which, I guess, is why we’re always told to keep the character count low and why, when I didn’t, my brain practically bled out through my ears as I tried to organise them so they were properly driven and active and kicked sufficient butt.



  9. How your posts never fail to both illuminate the aspects of my WIP that are successful while simultaneously highlighting every crappy flaw is amazing. Learn something helpful every time.
    the Wendig is a wonder

  10. Great post. I always recommend the book Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I heard her speak recently…awesome! Her book really helped me.

  11. I like the way you used “Star Wars” to illustrate drama. It’s a bit more recent than examples that are generally used. More people can identify with it.

  12. I’m at the point right now where everyone’s interests conflict and/or when they take action with the same interest/goal in mind, the choice of action conflicts. Then there’s the thing where consequences beget MORE consequences.

    And so I am here trying to ensure that it all does not tip into soap opera territory.

    At least I’m not running out of storyline?

  13. Would you give similar advice for writing background characters? Or can those mostly be ignored in favor of the ‘important’ players in a novel?

  14. I approach my characters in a similar way, only it tends to be much more complicated. I’m an overly complicated person, so it works for me. Great post.

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