P. S. Hoffman's Writing Blog

How Brandon Sanderson Motivates His (Incredible) Main Characters

I can't stop telling my friends about Brandon Sanderson's books.

Before I sat down to write this post, I spent the last six hours dedicated to finishing Words of Radiance, the second book in his epic Fantasy Series, The Stormlight Archives.

Could. Not. Put. It. Down.

This dawned on me as I neared the climax of the story: 

Sanderson writes deceptively simple characters. They're easy to follow, yet surprisingly deep.

Let me show you how Brandon Sanderson writes compelling characters with powerfully conflicted motivations:

4 Simple Steps to Compelling Character Motivations

When I first started reading Sanderson's booksI fell in love with the world (and world-building).

His characters didn't seem to be anything special. But after spending dozens of hours watching them grow, and becoming ridiculously invested in their goals...

...I knew I had to figure out how he makes such compelling protagonists.

Now, after hundreds of hours of listening to Writing Excuses, and watching Sanderson’s lectures on Youtube, I believe I’ve uncovered the core of his process.

Much of it hinges on the intricate way he motivates these characters.

Ready to see how it's done?

Whelan_Stormlight_Shallan_Character_Motivation.jpg
Image by Michael Whelan. Via Brandon Sanderson's Website.

Step 1. What is Your Character's Main Motivation?

Start with something in your character’s backstory.

  • What is something they could never get?
  • What is something they’ve always wanted?

You want to find something for them to always work towards. Something that will drive your plot forward.

Some examples from the main characters of The Stormlight Archives series:

  1. Dalinar wants to unite Alethkar.
  2. Kaladin wants to end the tyranny of the Lighteyes.
  3. Shallan wants to repair her family… and maybe the entire world.

Need more ideas? Here’s a deeper dive on ways to motivate your characters.


Way-of-Kings-Character-Motivations.jpg
Image by Michael Whelan. Via Brandon Sanderson's Website.

Step 2. What is Their Immediate Motivation?

For important characters, this should change multiple times during your story.

  • Are they dying for a glass of water?
  • Is there someone hunting them in an alley?
  • Do they want to run from the jaws of a gigantic, slavering monster?

An example from Words of Radiance (minor spoilers ahead):

Shallan knows she needs to get to the Shattered Plains. The longer it takes, the more likely she is to fail on her massive, world-changing quest.

However, she is stranded. She’s many days away from the nearest town… and it’s pretty rare to see people pass by where she is.

To make things worse, her feet are cut up, and she’s not going to survive out here without a fire to warm her.

Her immediate goal becomes survival. At any cost. Even if it means she must move into greater danger and get further from her ultimate goal.

You don't have to use survival.

There are plenty of immediate motivations to draw upon. Here’s a great example from the 1993 movie, Jurassic Park:

Dr. Alan Grant’s overarching objective is to teach this group of people about his work.

But when the kid acts like a little shit, Dr. Grant gains a new immediate motivation: to terrify this arrogant child.

Why Do You Need Layers of Motivations?

Do you know anyone in your life who only wants one thing? That would make them pretty one dimensional. Or, flat.

Which is fine for your minor characters - but your Protagonists, Antagonists, and supporting cast need to feel like they’re something much more tangible.

When you start to layer on the motivations (not too many, now), names on the page become characters in our heads.

Words-of-Radiance-Motivations
Image by Michael Whelan. Via Brandon Sanderson's Website.

Step 3. Can You Harness the Power of Tension?

Layered goals are great. But what about the conflict between those motivations?

Another example from Words of Radiance:

Dalinar is the young King’s uncle. He was once a great hero, an old soldier, but now he's become… complicated.

Dalinar isn’t quite sure what he is, anymore:

  • A politician?
  • A general?
  • A prophet?

Let's look at the conflict here:

Goal #1 - Dalinar wants to unite Alethkar

The Alethi are a race of great warriors, who believe strength and conquest gives one the right to rule (in fact, that’s how Dalinar and his kin came into power).

Why?

He believes it’s critical to the survival of the Alethi people.

Goal #2 - Dalinar wants to make peace

Alethkar’s sworn enemies have offered peace.

And Dalinar wants to accept... even though these same enemies assassinated the old King of Alethkar.

Dalinar believes peace among their peoples is the only way anyone will survive the great forthcoming change.

Why Does Brandon Sanderson Use Conflict between Motivations?

Remember how we layered motivations?

Now, we can start to play those motivations off each other. This allows you to the true depths of your characters.

Bilbo_Baggins_Character-Conflict-Motivation.jpg
Image via The Lord of the Rings Wiki.

Take Bilbo Baggins for example (from The Hobbit):

Bilbo takes pride in the fact that he is exactly like the other hobbits.

Except, when adventure calls, he goes and does a very un-hobbit-ly thing:

He accepts. Begrudgingly, of course.

This level of internal conflict allows us to see what Bilbo is really made of.

Yes, he's a bit small minded. No, he’s not some great warrior. But he is does have his own special brew of bravery.

Step 4. Whose Motivations Should Change?

I’m incredibly excited to talk about this one.

And afraid.

Because this is one of the most climactic moments in Words of Radiance. I will do everything in my power not to spoil it for you. 

However, this one hinges on one of the climaxes in Words of Radiance. If that's a deal breaker… skip down to the next headline. I’ll have a different example there.

This moment has been built up since the first book.

You can tell Sanderson really knows what he’s doing. He certainly seems to have a long term plan for most of his major characters.

Kaladin_Fan-art-writing-motivation.jpg
Image via The Stormlight Archives Wiki.

Example from Words of Radiance: Kaladin Stormblessed

Kaladin is the underdog. And he struggles with it the entire story.

He was betrayed by the Light eyes. At every turn, they slight him. And just when he thinks he can trust one…

...they betray him again.

He hates them with every fiber of his being.

But Kaladin is trapped by the motivations instilled in him by his upbringing. His Father was a surgeon, and taught him that harm can't be the answer, because it only begets more harm.

Yet Kaladin decides to follow the warrior’s path, because his central motivation is to protect those nearest him. It's so much easier to protect when you can fight.

His surgical background creates conflict with his "warrior self." It creates an unsurpassable rift in his conscious.

Because of this rift, all of his actions seem to wrong

Kaladin is trapped. He can't find righteousness in his life.

Until, FINALLY, in a moment of impossible and emotional need:

He figures it out.

And in this single, rushing moment, all of Kaladin’s motivations pivot around this single revelation.

It’s a colossal, climactic rush. Immensely satisfying for the reader, who has been routing for Kaladin for the last 800,000 words.

Why?

Because we were worried that Kaladin would snap. Would break under his own motivations.

But, instead. Kaladin rose up. He ascended, because of his own inner conflict - and became so much more motivated.


Darth-Vader-Character-Motivation.jpg

The Power of Changing Motivations: Star Wars

In Episode V, Luke discovers that the main villain, Vader, is also his Father. (Hopefully, this doesn't need a spoiler warning).

And Luke can’t handle the truth. He literally risks death to get away from Lord Vader.

Luke hated Vader since the beginning. And now, he hates himself because he's born of Vader.

Hate is an essential part of the Dark Side. It tugs on his emotions:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Revenge

Luke even starts wearing black - like every Dark Side character before him. The pull is so strong that he disregards the advice of Yoda and goes off to fight his Father.

But he has a moment of clarity - and everything changes. He realizes he has been driven by all the wrong things:

Luke realizes he doesn’t want to kill his Father - doesn't want to succumb to the power of the Dark Side.

He wants to take the better path. Even if that means death.

Complex Motivations = Compelling Characters

A change in motivation is a change in character.

Sometimes, it means growth. Other times, like in many horror stories, it can signifying a tragic devolution.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this writing rule, but…

...at the core, all stories are about change. That’s why readers read books, or watch movies. We want to see something become something else.

We crave transformation.

If you want to learn more about creating characters, read this this article next.


Related Article: The 12 Secrets to Character Description

12 comments on “How Brandon Sanderson Motivates His (Incredible) Main Characters”

    1. And he does such a good job of carrying those through the entire series, and not just ending it between books. I was really satisfied reading the second book in a series, which isn't easy to make happen.

    1. Zuko's character arc from Avatar : The last Airbender is probably the most awesome. His inner conflict and change in motivation trumps Kaladin's.
      I wish Kvothe had some of this inner conflict too. He seems to do things too easily, like he is made of Aramid or something..

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P. S. Hoffman
About P. S. Hoffman
P. S. Hoffman writes Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is obsessed with all things futuristic, primarily Artificial Intelligence and the transformation of societies. Here, he shows others how to sharpen their fiction-writing skills by dissecting the techniques used by the world's best authors.

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