Are Your Characters Lazy Sacks Who Lack Motivation? How Backstory Drives Conflict


Frog smoking cigarette, lacking motivation

So, I’ve been outlining the remainder of the series, and I’ve recently had a breakthrough I’d like to share with you. Here it is:

Back story motivates characters. Your characters’ motivations drive tension and conflict.

“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

― Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 

^Love him, favorite author.

So, if you find your characters have become, or have always been, slack-jawed, lazy, lumbering neanderthals who dare not turn a page, you might need to give them some motivation.

I’ve discovered, with the help of Emma Darwin, that the easiest way for me to get my characters off the couch and into conflict is to flesh out their backstories.

For example, Talcott’s main motivation is to be human again.

“Without it, all joy had left me, the rich fabric of human emotion ashes in my mouth. This is death, and it is spiteful, frustrated, and bored.”

His backstory informs his motivation, which is thoroughly explored in Volume Two, due for release in about ten days.

“I struck a match from the underside of the bench and lit the end; the tobacco sizzled and the smoke lingered in the sticky heat of the Georgia night. I inhaled and wished I could feel my lungs turn to rice paper—that old cut down the back of my throat, sharp as a knife—but I felt and tasted nothing but disappointment and regret. I regretted my willing change, my acceptance of death everlasting offered to me in a foxhole on the cratered fields of France.”

Now, it is extremely important to create conflict, or drive tension throughout a creative narrative. That’s what creates a page turner. You do this with character motivation. If you are able to give a characters a compelling backstory, it becomes much easier to find out what their motivations are.
However, creating tension or conflict does not have to be grandiose. KISS it. Keep It Simple Stupid. If you have figured out what motivates your character, you can play fortunately-unfortunately. 



Thirsty Theodore wanted lemonade. His mother, whom he’d lost at a young age, always made it for him, and it was a sort of comfort drink.

Lemonade Leo had been serving lemonade all day to tired, thirsty, and demanding customers. He was just about to close down his stand for the day when Thirsty Theodore entered stage left.

Fortunately, Thirsty Theodore found a lemonade stand. Unfortunately, Lemonade Leo didn’t want to squeeze anymore lemons for him.


Samuel spent months wooing Elyse . . . flowers, candlelight . . . and now she was finally smitten with him.

Fortunately, Elyse now likes Samuel. Unfortunately, Samuel’s latent avoidant-attachment style is now coming to the forefront of their interactions.


As a risk averse individual, I’ve always made sure I was covered by top-notch insurance policies. But, insurance companies make money through monthly premiums and investments, and lose money by paying out claims.

Fortunately, my insurance said in the policy it would cover my procedure. Unfortunately, they are refusing to honor my claim.

Playing fortunately-unfortunately with your characters will allow you to avoid making elaborate, time-consuming plots. The time you’d spend plotting and scheming can be better spent actually writing the story.

Furthermore, you want to keep the narrative moving and the best way to do that is drive conflict. What is conflict between characters?

Conflicting wants/needs, informed by each character’s motivation, which is determined by their backstory. 

So, to recap:

Step 1. Devise the backstory.

Step 2. Find out how backstory motivates your characters.

Step 3. Fortunately – unfortunately.