Story Stuff: I Is For Internal Motivation

We’re officially a third of the way through our Story Stuff series. I hope you’re enjoying reading the posts as much as I am writing them (which is a lot).

Today we talk about the other side of what we started on E day – that was external motivation, so today is . . . internal motivation!


Internal (or intrinsic) motivation is a little fuzzier than external motivation. As described in this article, a person (or character) operating from internal motivation is working towards internal rewards, such as learning something new or simply to enjoy an activity. Intrinsic motivation involves positive emotions for their own sake – or in the interest of narrative conflict, avoiding or fighting negative emotions.

As I was chewing on the content of this post, Guardians of the Galaxy came on TV, and one character in particular demonstrates a nice contrast between external and internal motivations: Rocket.



On the surface, Rocket is entirely externally motivated. He and Groot are bounty hunters who are out for basically one thing: money (or units, as they’re called in this world). The only reason they agreed to help Quill and Gamora get the orb to the collector was the promise of four million (or was it billion?) units.

But there are moments were we get to see Rocket’s internal motivations almost win out.

Take the bar fight scene. Drax had insulted Rocket’s status as a genetically engineered being, and because Rocket was all liquored up, he pulled a gun on Drax. Quill had to talk him down, reminding him of the massive number of units headed his way if he can keep from killing anyone.

Rocket was internally motivated to get satisfaction from killing the guy who’d insulted him. But he was more externally motivated by money.

In a funnier example, Rocket is leading the others in crafting a plan to escape the prison.

rocket prison


Part of the instructions to Quill was to obtain another prisoner’s prosthetic leg. Rocket didn’t really need it for the escape. He just thought it would be funny to make Quill get it – he was internally motivated to get a laugh.

Characters have their reasons for doing what they do, just like we do. Understanding why they do those things, and how their actions are externally or internally motivated, can make them seem more real and relatable.

Even if the character is a genetically engineered raccoon.

What characters do you think have strong internal motivations? 


6 thoughts on “Story Stuff: I Is For Internal Motivation

  1. Pingback: Blogging From A to Z Challenge – Theme Reveal! | Allison Maruska

  2. I like it when we feel is though we know the characters’ motivations because we’ve spent time with them and listened to their conversations, and then another – bigger – motivation is unearthed at the Big Reveal. In The Navigators, the characters all appear relatively externally motivated when they discover a time machine. One wants to go back and pick stocks that will do well, one wants to explore historical mysteries or religious mysteries, but basically they are looking for fame and fortune.

    It is only later in the story when the Big Reveal happens, that we find out there were other motivations afoot. Internal ones. Pride. Clear the family name. Revenge.

    Things are not what they seem.

    That’s when the twist in the story comes about, where readers feel like they have been dropped off at the top of a four-story building, and they are loving every minute of it. It’s a great device, and when it’s done well, it’s amazing. You can practically hear the applause. You definitely get to smile when beta readers say things like: “Wow, that was great. Did NOT see that coming!”

    Liked by 1 person

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