Episode 132: Motivated by Revenge

On February 6th, we started a series on Character Motivation. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Motivation: Vengeance, Revenge, Retribution


  • Character Motivation Series
  • Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic motivation
  • How to write a character bent on revenge
Wondering why your characters act the way they do? Give them realistic motivations.
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Last week’s discussion on killing the buddy uncovered some important nuggets such as:

  • Make the relationship matter
  • Sacrifices only count when they hurt
  • The buddy needs his or her own storyline, wants and desires for their death to really matter.

So that got us talking about motivation and so this week we kick off a series on Character Motivation. I like series because we can dig deep on one thing instead of just passing over it. So here’s our initial list for Character Motivation:

  • Revenge (today)
  • Forgiveness or Redemption
  • Physiological needs — food, shelter, clothing
  • Safety needs — free from persecution, free from danger

There’s a whole list here and we may add to ours. But we don’t want to beat a dead horse, so, ya know, we’ll stick mostly to the top-level stuff.

But first, housekeeping:

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Segment 2

Okay, so this blog suggests we categorize motivations and I think they’re on to something, so let’s start with the Extrinsic and Intrinsic conversation.

Extrinsic motivations are things like money, promotions, tangible goods. Intrinsic motivations are things like pride, self-worth, and fun or entertainment. Extrinsic motivators come from other people — they offer us stuff — rewards, recognition, validation, toys, gifts, and prizes. Intrinsic comes from within — we bring those to ourselves — curiosity, passion, purpose, growth.

Here’s a link to a previous episode where we talked about establishing desire.

Your character can be motivated by extrinsic things. Can those motivations be sustainable for an entire novel? Can we only be looking for the Ark of the Covenant for how rich it will make us? Or must we also have some intrinsic motivation that we can pair with the extrinsic to give the story more depth?

The categories offered by the blog linked above include:

  • The role of the character — how does the role impact the motivation? Is this the main character? The antagonist? The best friend?
  • Basic motivations are those Maslow’s hierarchy things — food, water, shelter, safety, love and belonging
  • Noble motivations are those sacrificial ones — for love, for honor, for a family legacy or a sense of duty
  • Evil motivations are greed, anger, hatred, destruction, and yes, revenge (which we’ll come back to)
  • Fear motivations are about what we stand to lose: shame, loss, regret, death

Segment 3

So let’s focus on “revenge” or “vengeance” or “retribution”

What kinds of things require revenge? Well, again, it’s about loss, right? We lost our job, our boyfriend, our ancestral home, our freedom, or even our life or that of someone close to us.

Think about parents looking for their child’s murderer, or a husband or wife looking for revenge on a cheating spouse. 

House of Sand and Fog has a woman losing her family’s home because the bank sells it at auction and the man who buys it has been degraded as a foreigner in the U.S. – working a convenience store – and wants to put on airs, or demonstrate a kind of success in his new country with the purchase of the home. The book stops short of a revenge motivation, but you can see the makings of it when she confronts him for buying the property and he’s humiliated by her accusations.

Jay Gatsby is trying to show Daisy Buchanan he’s a man of means, it’s a kind of retribution or proof of worth.

Charlie (Kasie’s husband) says Rocky IV is about revenge as is Karate Kid.

Great Expectations — the embittered spinster Mrs. Havisham bends her adopted daughter, Estella, into weapon to get revenge on every man ever.

The Count of Monte Cristo — imprisoned, loses his wife and fortune, once released, he sets about getting revenge on the men who tried to destroy him.

Atonement by Ian McEwan — what a great story! After she is made to feel like an insignificant child by her crush, Briony accuses the boy who lives on her parents’ property of attacking her cousin; the boy is her sister’s lover. World War II ensues. The lovers are parted when he’s conscripted and Celia, the sister, leaves her family to stand by her man. Briony spends the rest of her life seeking to atone for her sin. So maybe this applies as both revenge and forgiveness.

Hamlet — we talked a lot about Hamlet last week. Is it a revenge story?

Here’s a list. Here’s another list.

Beowulf — Grendal’s mother takes her revenge. Is this the first story with revenge as its motivation?

Carrie by Stephen King — is there a better revenge story than getting retribution for school bullying?

Wuthering Heights — Heathcliffe returns to face his childhood tormenters and the girl who refused him because of his poverty.

What kept coming up on these searches was that “thrillers” are often revenge stories. What makes this motivation so good for that genre? Or for horror?

Also, is revenge always mean-spirited? Cruel? Or dangerous?

What about teaching someone a lesson?

Segment 4

So how do you do it? How do you create a solid revenge motivation?

Here’s a good instructions blog. We’ll summarize it:

  • Make sure your characters know what they are doing and why
  • Make sure the protagonist has a satisfying arc — revenge might begin as childish (think Inigo Montoya’s childhood vendetta) but the character that grows into the revenge plot must examine the new and evolving implications for pursuing revenge and — maybe — ultimately getting it.
  • Give as much attention to the recipient of the revenge — the villain — as you do to the hero; must revenge be devastating to this person to really have an impact?
  • Origin stories matter — this might be the inciting incident of the story, or delivered as a flashback of exposition later (think Bruce Wayne’s parents’ death) but nonetheless, the crime committed by the villain and the anger it creates in the protagonist must be illustrated
  • Thoughtful revenge – which takes time and planning – is the most satisfying
  • Have a steady escalation – each plot point must bring us closer to the ultimate act of revenge, but we must be losing something – escalating stakes – as we go on
  • Revenge isn’t always the answer – sometimes the hero can be redeemed by forgiveness, failure, or just growing up and out of the need for revenge
  • Keep your hero relatable – make them fragile, make them question their quest, make them show mercy
  • Revenge is a journey, not a destination

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