Writing Tips

Character Motivations vs Morals

Not going to lie, I recently binge-watched The 100 through Netflix. For those of you who don’t know, The 100 is a TV show based off a young adult series with the same name. The first season follows a group of 100 kids dropped off on earth after a nuclear disaster destroyed the planet 97 years prior. It’s currently airing season 4. (I’m only on season 3.) Granted, I’m not normally a TV person. In fact, I usually have to be extremely ill to watch a bunch of TV, but I made an exception for The 100. Why? Because I fell in love during episode one. What do I love about The 100? The character motivations. They are 100% believable, even when the plot gets crazy, and I feel like that’s pretty rare.

There’s no spoilers in this article for The 100. Don’t worry. But definitely check out a few episodes to see what I mean.

Character motivations are so important, but often dwindled down to right vs. wrong. But motivation can (and should) be more than that. As an example from The 100, Bellamy just wants to save his sister, no matter what it requires (right or wrong) and whether she wants it or not. In fact, he often does horrible things in order to achieve his goal. Therefore, he is driven by his motivation to save his sister, not his morals to be a good person. On top of that, though he believes saving his sister is his responsibility, he doesn’t lie to himself and think he is morally perfect because of it. He doesn’t have a “hero complex.” An older brother complex, sure. But not a heroic one. He is driven by motivation, not morals.

Why do I bring up morals? Because morals is sometimes the opposite of motivation in fiction. Though they can be synonymous, it’s easy to let a character slide one way or the other. Personally, I always prefer believable motivations to morally-driven characters. Why? Because completely morally-driven characters can be hard to relate to. I mean, let’s be real. Sometimes, that self-righteous hero trope gets a little…boring.

I would much rather watch a show or read a book where the characters’ motivations are believable, morals be damned. Let’s take villains, for instance. The most popular writing tip today is that every bad guy believes they are the good guy, and while I love that tip, I disagree. Not all bad guys think they’re good guys. Granted, I like a bad guy who thinks he’s good. I often prefer them that way. But it’s also fun to follow a character who knows they are selfish, who has reasons for their selfishness, and owns it.

Of course, it’s always best to have both worlds, right? Motivations and morals (and sometimes one fueling the other) can be fun and exciting and terrifying and interesting. But I would like to see more books with strong, sometimes twisted motivations that overcome morally-driven characters.

What about you? Do you prefer characters with motivations or morals or a mixture of both?

Discuss away! Just don’t be the evil one and post spoilers about The 100 in the comments below. (Or at least put a warning at the top of your post.)

Thank you,


P.S. Bad Bloods: July Thunder releases next Monday! I also received my first review from Babbling Books! “Another fantastic addition to the Bad Bloods series and a marvelous start to a new duology. Wonderful writing, captivating characters and a story that will reel you in until the last page, these Bad Bloods may have a tendency of breaking the rules, but their stories are way too good not to read!”

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22 thoughts on “Character Motivations vs Morals

  1. That´s an interesting post. I have always thought that Bellamy was (besides Clarke) one of the coolest characters in the series. Just because he (especially in season 1) did the things that had to be done without bothering whether it was right or political correct or not.

    I do believe that moral are important in fiction. But I guess that every (“good”) character decides for himself was is right and what is not.I had not noticed that his main motivation was saving his little sister – but now that you mention it, it makes sense.So in his eyes, doing what has to be done (aka making tough decisions, especially in season 1; don`t want tom spoiler here) is perfectly in sync with what he things is right (saving what remains of his family).
    So what I want to say is: I guess that motivation and morals are closely connected to each other – especially when you think of morals as a special set of rules every character has for himself instead of what society things is right.. Just my two cents. 🙂

    By the way: Awesome post, Shannon!

  2. Interesting. I also feel it has to do with how you personally grow up and what you’ve been taught. I’ve grown up in a culture where morals are taught and stressed upon more so than some Western cultures. So even though it’s nice to see characters making “real” decisions, it’s also uplifting to see them making what I would deem to be more “moral” decisions. Yes, it might not be “real”, but I feel there is a way to balance morality, motivations, and interesting-ness. It’s just really hard to do so, lol.

    1. Absolutely! Balancing, I think, is the goal, but, like you said, balancing is really difficult to do. It’s easy to slip one way or the other with a character. Thank you for reading. 😀

  3. I find it really hard to believe that riff about villains thinking they are heroes. Maybe it’s because I’m a bullying survivor. People physically pushed me and insulted me every day. They didn’t care if it hurt me. It was fun for them.

    When villains kill, steal, etc. and claim it’s in service to a higher goal, I see that as a lie they tell themselves to ward off the knowledge that they did something selfish/wrong/evil.

    1. I do, too. I’ve read a few books, for instance, that I felt like the whole “villain believes he’s good” part was forced. He could’ve just been an evil prick and I would’ve believed the story more. Granted, like I said above, I love a good villain who does believe in what he’s doing, but I also think we might have gone a little overboard. It’s okay to just have an evil character–as long as that evil character has motivation, like you talked about. Evil can be 3D without also being good from the evil perspective’s eyes. Look at serial killers. Hardly any of them believe what they are doing is a good thing. But they continue to kill, often innocent people, for their own selfish glory or desire.

  4. I think, as far as villains go, there are two that I would go to that fit both of your descriptions. In Daredevil (the Netflix show), the Kingpin is a villain that thinks he’s a good guy. He does everything he does to bring about a goal he thinks is right. Compare that to the Penguin in Gotham. This guy knows he’s the bad guy. He’s sadistic and cruel and selfish, and he revels in it. They are very different, but they are still great villains.

    Hmm. I might have to write a full post about this.

  5. An interesting look at this. I’ve not seen the show, nor read the books, but I wonder if you can really separate morals from motivation. At a base level, isn’t our morals that determine our motivations? Our personal morals. We all have what we believe is right/wrong in our heads – and we act accordingly. Sometimes, we sacrifice some of those moral leanings because there is another moral leaning that is more important to us. Just a thought. Great conversation starter you have here. 🙂

    1. I think you can separate them, but it is difficult. Take the Bellamy example. His motivation is to save his sister, no matter the cost. Morally, yes, saving your sister is a great thing. But he does numerous, terrible things to others (even innocent people) in order to achieve his goal. Things he knows aren’t morally correct. Things he even struggles with. So, at times, his morals were separated from his motivations–and he often slips between the two. He’s a very dynamic character, which I’d like to see more of in fiction. Thank you for reading and adding to the conversation. 😀

  6. I LOVE The 100! Bellamy is such an interesting character since he is mostly driven by his need to protect Octavia, but that drive can sometimes lead him to do not so great things. I actually wasn’t too much a fan of him in S1 because he wasn’t always a great guy, but now he is one of my favorites. No spoilers, but right now in S4 Bellamy and Octavia aren’t too close and it’s making me sad.
    This also made me think of the new 13 Reasons Why Netflix show. A big difference I noticed with the show is that many side character’s motivations aren’t as black and white as they were in the book. I felt for some characters that I never thought I’d feel bad for.

    1. That’s another great point you bring up! Having characters driven by motivations actually leaves more room for their relationships and situations to change throughout a work (like Bellamy’s relationship with his sister). It’s like how I HATED Cain in season 1, but ended up liking him later on, because he changed. (And some characters went the opposite direction.) I love it when their motivations change as much as the story. It feels more real. I’ve read 13 Reasons Why, but I had a hard time watching the show. I only finished two episodes, but I don’t want to blame the show/book. When I read it, I wasn’t personally affected by suicide, but I lost a good friend to suicide since then, and now it feels a little too close. But I remember enjoying the book before that. I did see how they showed more POVs though, and that can definitely be interesting!

      1. Yeah I wasn’t a fan of Cain or Murphy in S1 but the really grew on me. Jaha, on the other hand, I’ve began to enjoy less and less. Yeah, I can understand that keeping you from wanting to watch 13 Reasons Why. It can get very uncomfortable at times since it is dealing with such sensitive topics.

      2. RIGHT?! I loved Jaha, and then … boo. I don’t like him anymore. But that’s one of the best parts of the show. My ever-changing emotions feel so real. And yeah, sensitive topics can definitely be hard to write, watch, read, etc. Maybe in the future I’ll give it another shot. 🙂 I’m looking forward to season four of The 100 though! I think Netflix gets it in June, so it’s a bit of a wait, but I know I’ll binge it the second it releases.

  7. I love The 100 too and Bellamy is my favorite character. He faces so many dark choices and sometimes makes the wrong one. The thing I like best about him is that he accepts the blame for his wrong doing. He doesn’t think he’s the good guy or a hero, he just keeps trying to save people. I wish I could write characters as complex as he is in my books, but for the show, can’t Bellamy just be happy for a few minutes?

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