What motivates you?

As a writer and an educator and a parent with a psychology background, I’m fascinated by motivation. Why do people – characters, kids, students, society – do what they do, and, more importantly, how can we influence it?

What’s important to keep in mind is that there are two kinds of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within – doing things for the sake of doing them, because you want to, with no expectation of a reward
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from someone or something else – doing things for a reward (something tangible, like money, or praise or acceptance) or to avoid punishment.

In my current WIP, A Handful of Wishes (tentatively scheduled for a December 2014 release), I explore this idea further by following Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

In the first stage, obedience and punishment, people are extrinsically motivated by fear of punishment: I don’t steal the cookie because I know imma get a wuppin’.

The second stage, individualism and exchange, is also all about extrinsic motivation, driven by tangible rewards: If I share my milk with you, you’ll share your cookie with me.

In stage three, interpersonal relationships, the extrinsic motivation takes a bit of a twist, with a social reward: I give you my cookie because then you’ll want to be my friend.

Stage four, maintaining social order, walks the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: I share my cookie because from preschool on we’re taught that in our society, it’s polite to share. I do it because society tells me it’s the right thing; it makes me feel good to do it, and it makes me feel good when society is happy with me.

In stage five, social contract and individual rights, people are intrinsically motivated: I give you my cookie because you don’t have one, and that makes me feel good.

Stage six, universal principles, is the pinnacle: doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

The main character in my novel, Zeke Archer, moves through each of these stages as his life progresses, guided by his genie, Paribanu.

If you’re a writer, how are your characters motivated – intrinsically or extrinsically? Where do they fall on Kohlberg’s list? Where do you fall?

1 Comment

  1. Nice post. In great writing, the characters are as complicated as we are. My guess is readers will finish A Handful of Wishes (lovely title btw) and have a wonderful sense of character growth.

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