I'm outlining a story and am all confused about motive and goal of my protagonist. She has been brought up to believe that she is weak and easily controlled. She yearns to teach her children to be strong (like she wishes she was) but has gotten into a situation where she is fully under the control of a domineering husband.

I think her goal is to free herself and her children from him. I read that a character's motive is the reason they have their goal, or the "why." But all I can think of is that her motive is to protect her children. That sounds an awful lot like her goal... I'm so confused!!! Can you help? What's a better way to explain motive vs goal?

4 Answers 4


I think the problem is that sometimes goals beget goals. You may need to keep asking "why?" a few times to get to the deeper levels of motivation.

  • Why does she want to get herself and her children away from her husband?
  • Because she wants to protect her children
  • Why does she want to protect her children?
  • Because she loves them.
  • Why does she love them?
  • ...?

After a while you get to a point where it stops sounding reasonable to ask "why?", or where it starts denying the person and replaces them with evolutionary imperatives ("she loves them because her genes want to ensure their own survival").

There can also be more than one answer to each "why?".

  • Why does she want to get herself and her children away from her husband?
  • Because she wants to protect her children
  • And because she hates her husband
  • And because she wants happiness for herself
  • And because she wants to stop feeling weak
  • And ... so on

Instead of motives, you can also consider values. What are things she thinks are important for their own sake.

  • Being a good mother
  • Being a good wife
  • Strength and independence
  • Integrity
  • ...

As you might notice, the first two here are in conflict when it comes to leaving her husband. On the one hand, if she wants to be a good wife, then leaving is bad. But on the other hand if it's best for her children, then leaving is good. Which does she value more? Such inner conflict can make the story more interesting and realistic.

I think that at the end of the day, it's not that important whether to call "protecting her children" a motive or a goal. What's important is to deep-dive into your character's identity, and explore why they do what they do, and want what they want. Ask the "why?"s that may have interesting answers, and don't stop at one answer if there are multiple.

There are also lots of sites that can help with things like lists of character core values, or questions for making up a character profile.


Let's talk about the Three Act Structure (3AS). This is not a dictum passed down by the Story Telling Gods, it was actually derived as an outline of how many thousands of successful stories have worked, throughout the ages. There are other structures that work, Shakespeare was fond of a Five Act Structure, but the 3AS is the most common outline.

In the 3AS, there are (confusingly perhaps) 4 equal parts; generally called I, IIa, IIb, and III. Act I also has a midpoint, so roughly 1/8th into the story. The first 1/8th of the story is the Setup; this is the protagonist's Normal World, their stable life progressing. We introduce some minor conflicts and problems to keep things interesting, show our hero's normal problems in life, but nothing life-changing is really going on, this is the time to get to know the hero and the people in her life and how she deals with them.

But halfway through the Act I, we have the "Inciting Incident". This is the start of a problem outside the hero's normal experience. It could be blatant (like somebody they love getting murdered) or subtle (a sudden nosebleed they don't typically get). But by the end of Act I, the problem begun by the Inciting Incident will force the hero to leave their "Normal World" (It may be their choice, or may not be) and embark on a quest (metaphorically or literally) to deal with the problem, and either return to their Normal World, or begin a New Normal.

The Hero's Goal or Intent is to end the problem, or figure out how to live a different normal life with it. They may or may not achieve that Goal, if my problem is a dying child, I may move Heaven and Earth and still not save my child; then the story cannot return to Normal. It is an unhappy ending, but perhaps I devote my life to saving other children also suffering like my child; a bittersweet ending.

Their Motive is that the problem is disrupting their Normal Life in an unacceptable way.

So yes, they are related. When the Goal is achieved, the motive may vanish. Or maybe the hero's eyes are opened and the Motive continues in a less personal way.

Stories are about changes in people's lives, and how they deal with them.

What you need for your story is an inciting incident: At what point does our hero realize she must do something about her abusive husband? How long has she put up with him?

Exactly what changes in her life that makes her suddenly decide "normal" is no longer acceptable, and she must do something about it?

Where is that scene?

In her normal life, perhaps he is abusive toward her, and she is obedient and accepts it -- But then one day he slaps a crying infant, and literally throws the child at her.

Whatever it is, she must be galvanized. Her goal was to be obedient and submissive and get along with her husband. Now the goal is changed by the Inciting Incident: her goal is to escape and live a normal life without him. She needs a plan, she has no money, she has no job. She may even consider murdering him.

Her motive is what is motivating her: That slapped infant thrown halfway across the room. More generally, his cruelty and temper.

Your goal is to escape the burning building. That is rationality, solving puzzles and making plans, anticipating the problems along the way and avoiding them.

Your motive is that you don't want to be burned alive. That is about emotions, fear perhaps, anger, love, pity or greed.


What's a better way to explain motive vs goal?

Want vs Need

What characters want

The character's longterm desire is a want. This is a dream or fantasy, something personal, that is unlikely to happen under their current circumstances when the story opens.

The want is 'pure' because it hasn't been acted on. It doesn't have to be saccharine or lofty, it could be a brutal revenge fantasy, or vapid influencer popularity, or to see Paris someday – it's a character-thing.

In musicals, the want is spelled out in a literal "I Want" song, probably at the earliest quiet moment just after the MC has been disappointed, scolded, reminded they will never go to a ball, or kiss the prettiest girl. It's before the inciting incident.

Audiences get a two-fer to bond with the MC: a show/don't-tell incident where we learn something about the rules in this world and (according to the protagonist) how some are treated unfairly – immediately followed by the MC retreating into their fantasy. Time stands still, the MC gushes their most naive desire, and the audience 'heals' from the bad experience through this false catharsis. Nothing has changed for the MC externally, it's just a coping mechanism. We see how this character is tapping into their want when they are in a dark place.

Rather than feel shame, abuse, fear, misery… they feel hope. This makes them a small hero even though they haven't done anything. It's the setup for this character's journey. Narratively, it might be a naive pantomime of the story's theme, or a twist on this character's eventual arc. The want is often like the monkey's paw curse. What they get is not at all how they imagined, playing into the theme.

What characters need

Contrast the want with what the character physically needs: shelter, food, a home for her family, money to pay the bills, and a support network of friends/family for when something goes wrong.

These needs are physical and practical. Most are not possible without compromise, ie: a job, access to the economics of your world. Without the physical world, the stakes have no meaningful consequences. It would just be characters wanting and desiring things they haven't earned.

Needs are generally worldbuilding and plot (father in a poor-house, mother dying of tuberculosis, and it's about to rain!). Also deus ex melodrama: your protagonist is as unfortunate as possible while maintaining suspension of disbelief, apropos to the tone and genre.

There are psychological 'needs' (affection, self-worth, freedom) but narratively these work like a want that must be earned through change/sacrifice.

Plot-wise, a need is a motive that compromises the character:

She needs the medication for her child, therefore she compromises her integrity to get it. We feel sympathy.

She wants to be a moviestar, therefore she compromises her integrity on the casting couch. We feel unsympathetic. It wasn't earned.

Consider a frog, slowly boiled in a pot

It's easier to figure out a character's motive scene-to-scene, when they are believable people in a semi-realistic world.

To keep a roof over her kid's heads she needs a good job – but who will care for her kids while she's at work? Now she needs a great job and a nanny, but she's out of the career track for years so that's not going to happen. Her husband agreed the mommything would just be a brief pause, except now he's too busy to step in as 'Mr Mom'. She's better at this than he is anyway.

They moved further from her family (her support network) for his job, or that was the pretext since he never liked spending time with her friends/family. Being an abusive jerk, his career isn't so hot but there's plenty of other people to blame when he feels insecure. She's been compromising little-by-little, now it's his turn and frankly he doesn't have to compromise. He's in a unique position to sabotage any situation that doesn't work for him, all he has to do is... nothing.

Your MC doesn't need to be brainwashed or gaslit to end up in an un-equal situation with a miserable person, it's pretty common. Compromise her needs, one-by-one, and you have the pressure-cooker suspense of a thriller (or horror, or melodrama) – definitely an arc you want to play over time, show/don't-tell.

The inciting incident will directly compromise her needs (plot-driven), or alter the status quo of her want (character-driven). As the plot progresses, the other will also be effected (at the lowest point of the story she gives up on the want ~or~ she escapes the abusive husband by living her fantasy) until finally a new status quo ends the story.


I made the generic suggestions above because there are some red flags in your description of this character, like maybe she was born to serve the plot, lacks her own agency, and might need character development.

She has been brought up to believe that she is weak and easily controlled.

I don't think you can convince someone they are weak and easily controlled.

You can have a local government that officially decrees that women are weak and easily controlled. You can have a religion that indoctrinates it. A corrupt doctor could write it on her certificate of parental fitness. The husband can login to Q-anon pickup artist websites that will definitely confirm women are weak….

I suggest instead that she is isolated from finances and her support network. She possibly has an 'other' status that makes her believe the locals would not help her. In an extreme (but not fictional) world she might be enslaved in a territory where she would be returned if captured. In another time she may have eloped and her family disowned her. Very recently she could not have opened a bank account or rented an apartment without her husband's signature.

Acknowledging there is nowhere to go is maybe more soul-crushing than gaining a plot-imposed hollywood mental illness.

She yearns to teach her children to be strong (like she wishes she was)

This is maybe her want?

Strength is not really a feminine want. It feels like a placeholder until something better comes along. She would teach her kids what she believes, or tries to believe. Where her beliefs radically differ from her husband or the mainstream, she would keep it covert. Kids don't keep secrets.

There is a built-in timer where her children will someday not be dependent on her and her situation will change, but it is years away. She is weighing all her needs against this deadline, possibly countless smaller deadlines that might incrementally regain her some freedom.

Her inciting incident, the reason she grabs the kids and runs, is because she no longer considers 'waiting out the clock' to be an option. Combine the husband's escalating abuse with her children's awareness (or indoctrination). At the same time she can no longer hide in her want fantasy, so she decides to make the fantasy real. As a character she is making choices that we have prior feeling about. It makes us care what happens to her.

but has gotten into a situation where she is fully under the control of a domineering husband.

Remember that needs are physical and very real. 'Fully under control' means he can sabotage her car, her phone, her mail. If she goes to the police, he will distort the truth. If she is held in custody, she can't prevent him harming the kids.

This has also worked the other way. Her needs are practical reasons she stayed – but having compromised herself she will be judged for it. He supported her while she stayed home with the babies.

Women are 'weak...' suggests you have a medieval or religious dystopia setting, but consider how my real-world examples can translate to your world. Readers will recognize the truth in it.

I think her goal is to free herself and her children from him... all I can think of is that her motive is to protect her children.

You've described a caged animal, not a woman. She is just mommy-hormone survival instincts defending the cubs.

I can't think of a bigger 'yikes' when describing a woman.

  • Thank you for your extensive comments. I read the last Yikes bit many times. In your last two paragraphs (caged animal defending cubs) is the Yikes your way of saying my character has no depth and I've reduced her to a plot-service animal?
    – nuggethead
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 2:21
  • We see "want vs need" differently. To me, the want is tied into the lie, while the need is tied into the truth. Using OPs example, the lie the MC tells herself is "I'm weak and easily controlled". One of her wants might be for her husband to stop domineering and controlling her. What she NEEDS is to realize he will never change and that she needs to up and leave. Until she realizes that her need is truer than her want, the lie will be in control...
    – Erk
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 3:49

This is how I define things.

The goal; should be described as an activity ("escape the kidnappers" as opposed to "be free"). The goal must be very specific. You should be able to envision the character acting as if on a stage or movie screen. It must describe an action that shows how, in detail, the character needs to act in order to achieve the character's ambition (sorry for introducing another term).

The goal may even have more than one step.

The ambition; is the overall goal/ambition that can be a bit more lofty than the goal. For instance, to be free.

The motivation; explains the goal and ambition and could be based on the character's past, emotional wounds, values, etc.

The motivation can be a rather long piece. After all, we usually don't act from a single source of motivation alone. In order for there to be a drop that can make the cup run over, the cup must already be full...

In your case, I'd say the goal is to escape with the children from the husband.

The ambition is to teach the children to be strong. Although, I sense between the lines that there might be an urge for general freedom here, from judgment as well as domination. Or for that matter, freedom to act without judgment.

The motivation is the emotional wound of being told by her parents that she is weak and easily controlled, but I also sense it's based on her starting to defy that past and starting to heal from that wound. Or at least a sense that if she continues letting the wound fester she will die. Though likely only psychologically.

The wound's part in landing her with a domineering husband is probably also part of the motivation.

Goals, ambitions, and motivations do not have to be applied so strictly though. They are there to let you figure out what your characters do and why, and also to introduce conflict, for instance when two goals are mutually exclusive.

They can also be used to show theme/message when two ambitions result in different goals. e.g. ambition: "get rich", character 1's goal: "work hard", character 2's goal: "rob the bank"... theme/message determines who is successful and who isn't...

For instance, what is the husband's ambition, and motivation? How do they relate to the main character's ambition and motivation? And how can they be used to show theme and/or message?

You can also use the motivation in the same way. Perhaps your main character's mother has the same emotional wound and is in the same situation with a domineering husband, but she chose to tough it out, and your main character's childhood is the result. How does this motivate your main character?

For instance, this, or at least part of it, could be a great revelation for the midpoint that could be used to propel your character into action, now knowing what will happen to her children if she stays.

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