I started up a new Skyrim character the other day. This is my third character, and I like to try to make the character their own person rather than a vague avatar of myself. This time, I tried an Argonian – lizard person for those of you unfamiliar – and I actually really like the race. I was trying to decide what made her different from my last character, who was a jovial elven werewolf. As I went gallivanting about collecting flowers just out of Helgen/tutorial, I decided she was the scholarly type, slowly developing the narrative that she got the idea Argonians and dragons might be related and she went to Skyrim to study the connection, only to discover she’s something called the Dragonborn. From there, everything she’d ever wanted to study fell right into her lap, along with a lot of danger.
That said, I faced a challenge with this new character. I have a pretty hard time not stealing everything and subsequently joining the thieves’ guild. But I can’t imagine why my Argonian would be into thievery. I mean, the idea of not stealing everything is just baffling. That’s not how I like to play and what’s the point of playing if I’m not doing it the way I like? But now I can either lose my narrative and just do the thief thing or I can try to invent a reason why she’d become a thief. Subsequently, her history of dealing with racism and scorn and having no funding for her research to the point where her desperation drove her to a moral edge that was easily tipped by an offer by one of the guild heads was developed.
I faced similar problems with other plotlines, like destroying the Dark Brotherhood, which I like to do but requires the murder of a (horrible) old woman to initiate. The thing about Skyrim is every time I make a new character, sure, I have so many options of plots to carry out – but each time, they are the SAME plotlines. And for many of them, it’s not hard for me to decide that this character will help that NPC because of some plausible motivation, but it is going to be the same actions with the same results – I’ll help restore the mines of Raven Rock, whether because I will be paid for my services, or because I like the old man investigating why they were shut down, or I want to help his wife by getting him to stop investigating the danger himself, or because there’s a mystery to unravel…so many different motivations, all the exact same quest, exact same actions.
And that’s the funny thing about motive. If you desperately need a character to do something for which they have no motivation, the first thing you should do is figure out what the character would do instead and work with that – but if it’s just not working out, you should be able to tweak the character or twist the motive enough to manipulate the character into doing what you want after all.
This is mostly useful to me when playing DnD – my privateer is being awfully friendly with the mainlanders of whom she ought to be suspicious, but it’s not hard to refine her motivation of finding some treasure on the mainland to “I’m juuust smart enough to know I don’t have the skills to find it on my own and I need to make friends to accomplish this and you don’t make friends with hostility” to make it so she’ll work together with the other PCs and help the DM get the band together.
But DnD is just another type of storytelling and skills you learn there are useful for solo storytelling – writing. Learning how to twist motive without breaking it, going beyond the reach of what your character would ever do, is a skill worth practicing.