Apologies for the difficulties I've been having, and leaning for help here. Every step seems to be its own stumbling block.

Question: All else being equal, is a positive desire/goal/motivation (of the main character) more 'hooky' for the reader than a negative desire/etc?

My male lead had originally started his story 'running from' hideous circumstances. He fell into trouble quickly on his own, and so his story opened in conflict and went from bad to worse. Readers say they do not connect with him. (They do connect with the alternating PoV female, who starts with a more traditional story arc, living her life normally, although she has her own issues as discussed previously.)

I'm in the middle of re-working his motivations so that he is moving towards something he wants. The early chapters (~10 - 15%) are now more of a pleasant aspirational escape for the reader (in other words, I am trying to more closely follow the story arc structure as suggested by MB, and frame the beginning of his arc as 'normal life' - and positive effort).

I've been wrestling each choice he makes (which are the same choices in the original version) into the schema of 'He is working towards an admirable goal, and is living within his normal life.' Additionally, he now starts his story arc higher on the 'competency' slider (as described by Sanderson, as this is supposed to make characters more 'likable.')

The story is largely the same, I'm merely changing the details so that he is working towards something definitive, in his normal life, (rather than running from something unpalatable and leaving his life behind on page 3.) Every challenge is still there, but rather than shrouded in desperation (version 1) it is now colored by effort and accomplishment (version 2).

My goal is to help the reader connect and root for the guy more easily. But, like any change, these revisions have ripple effects throughout the book, and it may be that after weeks of wrestling it all into a new shape, it will have lost (a) his remarkable growth in competence that was present in version 1, and (b) some of the oomph of logic for later choices, (eg why he chooses anonymity later in the book doesn't make sense as things stand now; I need to work on that today.)

So, I'm looking for a quick reality check. I'm aware that either approach (running from vs working towards) can be powerful. But perhaps they are not both as easily hooky. The genre is SF-F. Perhaps readers want fantasy to be an escape, and a world they'd like to be on.

If all else is held more-or-less constant, is a positive motivation more engaging to the reader than a negative motivation?

  • 1
    Have you considered dropping the male POV chapters, and presenting the entire novel from the female lead's point of view? Sometimes the best response to something that isn't working is to ask if you really need it. You wouldn't drop the character, just his POV. And by presenting him through her eyes, you can help shape how the audience reacts to him. Just as a personal note --I hate alternating POV anyway. I always end up preferring one character and rolling my eyes when the narrative shifts to the other. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:42
  • @ChrisSunami Thanks for the idea. I think I'll see if this wrestling match I am in the middle of, ends anywhere useful. I'll have learned something whether it does or not. I could drop his POV, but I like 2 POVs. In a larger sense I like stories that have some social commentary, two sides of an issue. Yin/yang, let's look at this from a few different angles. The trilogy & series will focus on societal issues (upcoming book = opioid abuse). However, (Looking at this from another angle :-) ) , many recommend keeping stories simple and with one POV. I will consider your recommendation.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:51
  • 1
    Something I struggle with daily in my own writing is not letting the story fall victim to my own high-concept ideas on what I want to convey. I'm personally trying to reach a point where I trust that the story will naturally carry my philosophies along with it, without me forcing it into unnatural shapes. With that in mind, I see no reason a one POV story can't bring us two different sides of an issue. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 16:11
  • 1
    You also might try continuing to write the male POV chapters, just not including them in the final manuscript. That way you can build the character as you want him to be, not worrying about his likeability. Another thing I'm struggling to master myself is the realization that not all necessary writing is for the final audience. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 16:13
  • Not to extend the discussion, :) , I refuse to give up high-concept ideas. Take that, world!
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 16:21

4 Answers 4


Negative feelings resonate in humans more strongly than positive ones - but a positive spin is needed for long term motivation

Humans have a tendency to value what they have, and therefore what they might lose, higher than what they may achieve. This is important from an evolutionary point of view, because when we have everything we need to survive and see an area that might have more fruits for example it is a risk to go to the new area. Staying where you are and defending what you already have at all costs will make sure you survive - after all, you currently survive. Only when the current situation is so bad that we can't live we will seek something more.

Of course this is a drastic way to describe the behaviour and it's not easy to see nowadays where he have the basics we need and try to strive for ever more money, fame, ... But in essence, we prefer to stay where we are and where we know it's safe.

This leads to the problem that positive things are something to be expected, while negative things are something that has to be avoided under any and all costs. This translates to reading in the way that we will quickly forget about simple jokes or nice feelings of that time when everything was alright - because that's what should be normal!

But negative things are what sticks in our mind. If the protagonist falls and is hurt, if family members are kidnapped, if the home burns down and the live seems to be destroyed - when something is taken away from them in some way. Their happiness or health or anything like that. This hurts because it already belonged to the character and it should continue to do so! The nice stuff blends into a general feeling of a nice, normal past, but each blow they receive sticks as a distinct situation.

Try to remember all the nice things that happened to your favourite character from the last SFF book you've read. Now list all the negative things. How long is each list and how detailed is it?

Of course the big solution at the end is probably on the positive list and may overshadow some other things at first, but most people will remember the bad stuff far more detailed than the good stuff.

Therefore negative feelings resonate more strongly and can be easier to see as an immediate motivation of what happens and why a character acts the way he acts. The problem is the long term motivation. Running away is not really a motivation unless your book is supposed to end in a tragedy. Getting my old life back is the normal way to give this a positive spin. There is a lot of bad stuff happening and the character is trying to get back to the good times, remembering how everything was alright when he had everything he needed and how even the small stuff was beautiful in hindsight, now that everything is bad and the sky is falling down on him he can only try to survive and get from day to day, hoping to one day return to normality.

The positive spin is important for long term motivation and to give the reader a better feeling at the end when the character accomplishes his goal - maybe in a different way than he imagines, for example by starting a new life with someone he met on his journey, but in essence he accomplished his goal.


Root for the guy is not really the magic elixir you are after. As I have said before, the heart of every story is a choice. It is not enough to make your character want something. The pursuit of that desire, whether the desire itself is considered positive or negative, is not enough. It must lead the character to a choice of values, a moment in which they have to choose between something they love and something they want.

We don't follow a character simply because we want them to get what they want. We follow them because we realize, however dimly at first, that they are going to have to make a choice to get the thing they want.

This business of making choices between values is something we face all the time in our lives. These decisions are difficult both because they involve giving up something (some possession, some opportunity, some prejudice, some comfort, etc.) but because such choices are almost always made with incomplete information, and as such require considerable courage. Stories are how we prepare ourselves for such decisions, and how we comfort ourselves when we find we have made the wrong choice or wonder if a different choice would have turned out better.

This is what we want to see in a story, and we follow a character because we have the sense that they are going to have to make such choices. Rooting for them, therefore, means more than simply hoping they get what they want, it means hoping they make the right choice, which may well mean not getting what they want.

So, in addition to what the character wants, you need an equally strong reason they can't have it, or more specifically a hard choice they must make, a sacrifice that will be necessary for them to get what they want. Desire + obstacle = story.

  • This is very interesting to me. Really compelling choices are sacrifices that don't seem to get the character what they want, but then turn around to reward them in the end. Like Luke giving up and accepting death rather than apparent victory at the end of Return Of The Jedi. He makes what seems at first to be a choice to not get what he wants in the end, but then does get what he wants, with the final price that even though he did turn his father, his father dies. Intention - Obstacle - Choices I learned a lot from this one answer. Thank you. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 18:52
  • I am puzzling over love/want. One seems to be a subset of the other, to me, we typically want all the things we love and we want more besides. Can the intent of your framing (love / want) be restated as: something the character will do altruistically (love) vs something the character will do selfishly (want)?
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:18
  • 1
    @DPT I was thinking more in the sense of things they posses that they want to hold onto vs things they want but don't yet have. Altruism vs selfishness is one variety of that conflict. Actually, two, since it works both ways: give up greed for love or love for greed.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:25

You have some great advice here, and I agree, negative motivations can be just as compelling as positive motivations, provided they are well-rooted.

And to that end, I would take the time to backstory your character. It's a lengthy process that seems like a waste of time if it won't make it into the book, but it's so worthwhile. Because a character's goal is far more compelling when it's born out of her deepest desires, his deepest fears, her most poignant moments in life, and it's always more plausible if it is. When your reader understands the deepest desires that motivate your character's goals, they'll root for them right to the end.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a good example of this. If you asked Harry, 'Why do you risk getting expelled to go and look in the mirror of Erised?' and he replied, 'Because in it, I see myself as captain of the Quidditch team,' as Ron does. The reader isn't going to connect deeply with that goal.

However, when Harry looks in the mirror, he sees his parents. And we know from his backstory that his parents were murdered when he was a baby, he never got to see them or know them. His aunt and uncle abused him and he's never known what it was like to be truly loved.

So, when Harry keeps going back to the mirror, you understand why it's so important to him. His goal is informed by his deepest desires, his deepest fears (of Voldemort) and memories of his past.

So, you know your MC needs a goal. But don't pick one out of thin air and then spend the book trying to convince the reader that she really wants it. Find out who your character really is, deep down inside, what motivates him, what affects her to the deepest marrow of her bones. And use that to give birth to their goal.

Good luck!

  • Thank you. I've got buckets. He has two role models - one negative and one positive - in his life. About 10% of his developed backstory has been included in the story through dialog, action, choices, exposition, and flashbacks. Other parts will become known in book 2. Some of his backstory is inconsequential to the story, like the first girl he dated, but I do know all about her! :-) The framing of his choices had been running from his negative role model, and I'm wrestling it instead to following the positive role model. It's an odd exercise, because the actual events don't really change.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:24
  • No, and it's fine that the actual events don't change. What's important is that you know that main character better than you know anyone in your life. You need to know everything that's coloured his life from the moment he was born. Because that's what informs his choices. When you know your character that well, you'll know exactly how he'll respond in any given situation. Do character questionnaires like this one: novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire it's time consuming but will make writing scenes faster when you know exactly what your character will do and say.
    – GGx
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 8:06
  • I'd also be careful of allowing his role models to frame his choices too much. You don't want a puppet whose strings are worked by his role models. That's a sure fire way to create a character who doesn't appeal to readers. Readers like robust characters, whether the actions they take are positive or negative, readers need to believe those choices are the only ones that character could make given what's happened to them and who they are. You can try putting characters into imaginary scenes to test them. Take them to lunch. Have conversations with them. Have fun and play with him a bit!
    – GGx
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 8:12

All else being equal, is a positive desire/goal/motivation (of the main character) more 'hooky' for the reader than a negative desire/etc?

Personally, I think this must be the wrong question because I can think of many examples that need both. Look at the Bourne Identity series: Jason wants to live a normal life (positive) but to do that he needs to kill an army of people that want to kill him (a decidedly negative goal). But isn't his goal running away from who he was and killing his past?

In Star Wars, Luke wants to save the universe from the Dark Side, but has the negative goal of killing Darth Vader and his minions.

In Taken, the protagonist is intent on saving his daughter, by killing mobster sex traffickers by the dozens.

The same for James Bond and Kingsmen, doing good by slaughtering hundreds in clever and fun ways.

Is vengeance for the death of a loved one a negative goal, or a positive goal? Especially if the vengeance realized will stop the career of an evil person.

I just watched a rerun of "The Equalizer" with Denzel Washington (2014, a sequel should come out soon), a vigilante ex CIA agent wiping out Russian mobsters and corrupt cops because the mobsters beat the living crap out of his coffee-shop friend, a teen prostitute. Is that vengeance?

While I agree that readers should learn something about your character's baseline before you start slicing him with razors, remember the First Act (your 10%-15%) should end with the reader understanding the nature of the big-ass problem he faces.

Many stories begin with characters running like hell from a bad situation, they witnessed a mob murder and only want to get away, fast, with no other plan. Or a wife is being beaten bloody by her husband. Or a sex slave only wants to escape her captivity and end her misery.

So perhaps you have just gone too far with the normal life and life-affirming goals by pushing them all the way to 15%. Perhaps you need a turning point from normal to "Oh crap" at 5%, then "I need to run away to survive" at 10%, then at 15%, and the closing of Act I, the big ass problem is "running away won't work".

  • I don't see what you call "negative goals" as goals at all. They are what seem to be the only ways that the characters can achieve their goals in the face of the obstacles they are presented. This is why they have to have a very strong desire to achieve their goal - because that makes it believable that they would attempt dramatic and potentially immoral things to overcome the obstacles in their way. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 18:48
  • @ToddWilcox I am using the OP's terminology, that a "negative" goal is running away from something bad (just escape, not trying to fix the bad thing or make it better), or perhaps doing things you know are bad, as opposed to pursuing some betterment or loftier goal. Surely acting to avoid getting beaten or killed or imprisoned, or trying to escape ridicule or shame, is still trying to achieve a goal, while not really trying to change yourself to be something new (other than safe and left alone).
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 19:06
  • Ok, I see what you're saying. Interpreted the OP's "negative goals" to mean "revenge" as opposed to a "positive goal" like "justice", even though there is a form of justice we might find in a character taking revenge in such a way that unjust people are killed. Often times characters who seek things like revenge are characters we can identify with even though we know they are deeply flawed, and if they sacrifice their lives in the end we feel like justice overall was served best, and if they live happily ever after in the end it rings false. Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 19:12
  • 'Negative' in the sense of ~some cowardice, vs 'positive' in the sense of ~aspiration. @Amadeus, the problem is not that there is too much normal life. The problem is, the inciting incident is more of a slow motion vise than a hammer. I think a vise can work - you mention good examples of mounting pressure/breaking point - what I am not certain of is whether a punctuated single inciting incident after three chapters of normalcy (~ roughly escapist for the reader) is better than a slow grind of desperation for the MC until at the end of Ch3 he ends at the same place, via the vise.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:12
  • 1
    I suppose a vise could work; I haven't tried it. I get sick (I can deal), then I lose my job (I can deal), then my apartment is flooded (I can deal), then my lover breaks up with me (you know what, the hell with this life ...). The 1st three chapters should not be "escapist", her "normal" should include conflicts, lest it be a boring read. In normal life we covet outcomes, advancement, romance and sexual release, and people or circumstances stand in our way or compete. That reveals her character. But by Act I, a compelling new challenge is clarified. (Not the solution or even a plan.)
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 15:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.