Episode 134: Motivated by Greed

On February 20, Kasie and Rex continued the Character Motivation series with an episode on greed, avarice, and ambition. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Motivation: Ambition, Greed, & Avarice


  • Character Motivation Series
  • Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic motivation (review)
  • How to write a character driven by ambition, greed, or avarice
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Link to podcast

Segment 1

We’ve been working this motivation thing this month and this week’s topic is Ambition, Greed, or Avarice and in our #wschat this week we had a semi-debate over whether these three things should be grouped together. The nature of the debate is whether they’re bad bad or good ambitions. So we’re going to get into that. We’ll provide some examples and talk about exactly how to do this.

But first, housekeeping:

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Okay, let’s talk motivation. This link has a cool reminder of Maslow’s hierarchy and the basic needs being met and all that.

So, whilst googling “character motivation greed” I found this blog that uses GRAILS as an acronym for character motivation. How clever is that:

G — Greed

R — Revenge

A — Acceptance

I — Identity

L — Love

S — Survival

We covered Revenge and last week we did “forgiveness” or “redemption” which might fall into that acceptance category. Maybe next week we’ll do survival.

Anyway, that blog suggests that greed can be good. For example, if the character is greedy for altruistic reasons — “Think of what we can do with all this money?” Goonies comes to mind.

Our TV Trope site points out that greed is frequently the villain’s motivation. For example, the evil corporate executive, the corrupt politician, or the gold digger.

So is greed inherently bad? And, if so, is the character that is motivated by it also bad?

Here’s a link that asks about humanizing a greedy character. We saw this effort with Gollum and how despite the monstrous (truly gruesome) appearance of the character, he was a victim of the ring’s magic. Thee Reddit responses suggest the character might be a product of poverty or denial and thereby justify the greed — I will never be hungry again, right? Or, like our trope site says, you can humanize a greedy character by indicating they want to acquire money, fame, or whatever it is in order to do good things.

What are some things we can be greedy for?

Segment 2

As a fun sidekick to greed, gluttony has a good tradition in literature. Consider this list on Barnes & Noble which lists, among other characters, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as these lovable gluttons:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • Robert Baratheon from Game of Thrones who was first of his name and first in line at brothels and taverns

Let’s move from greed to avarice because our debate on #wschat was also about whether or not these are the same thing. I don’t think they are. I think greed is a desire that does not worry about where the desired object or wealth comes from. Avarice, on the other hand, is about what someone else already possesses and whether the character can take it.

Turns out, most of Google equates greed and avarice so maybe we’ll be the first to differentiate between the two. Let’s give it a try (this link helps) (also this link):

  • Greed is usually related to hunger and avarice with wealth or possessions
  • Greed is less formal and more general while avarice has the stench of sin to it
  • Greed is bad, but can be justified, avarice is mean-spirited and is hard to justify
  • Avarice comes from the Latin root meaning “to crave” so it might be compulsive
  • Greed is about wanting more than you need, so that implies there’s a natural (and understandable need) before there’s excess; avarice might spawn from jealousy

Okay, so what does avarice do to a character? It could twist their actions toward more selfish ends. It could make them sacrifice other things (and people) they care about.

Would you consider addiction a form of greed? In terms of its ability to twist motivation and force characters to choose between things they care about and things they desire?

Segment 3

Now, greed and avarice’s nicer, more respectable cousin: Ambition.

There’s actually a compare/contrast table for this one courtesy of Pediaa.com

This gets at our extrinsic motivation — greed — money, status, possessions, food, wine, etc. and intrinsic motivation — ambition — achievement, success, acclaim. Ambition is usually seen as a good thing: it encourages people to work harder, it motivates them to keep going when they encounter resistance, it suggests they want a better life for themselves and the people who depend upon them.

Really mean takes on this will say a greedy person desires things he is unwilling to work for, while ambition indicates the person will, in fact, do the work.

So what happens to a character motivated by ambition? Interestingly, all the same things that happen to a character motivated by greed. She must choose between things she cares about and her ambition. She must be willing to sacrifice and likely lose, forever, certain comforts and securities.

Some literary examples of ambition:

  • Macbeth
  • Lady Macbeth
  • Iago
  • Claudius
  • Brutus

Well, a lot of Shakespearean characters, actually. Here’s a whole link about it.

On the non-Shakespearean list:

  • Michael Corleone
  • Hermione Granger
  • Jay Gatsby
  • Phillip “Pip” Pirrup

The Folk of the Air series by Holly Black has multiple entries on the list so let’s discuss the ambition of moving through the ranks in fantasy novels.

Here’s a whole list of books about ambition that I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read enough entries on.

This article argues that all ambition is evil. It’s a compelling argument. Or is the phrase “Villains act, heroes react,” correct? Can our hero, in simply responding to the sinister ambitions of the villain, be developing a counter-ambition out of necessity. Put another way: if the villain wasn’t doing the wrong thing, would our hero have to be doing the right thing?

All characters have ambition, right? They have to want something or why are we reading about them. This link is all about the values, goals, and ambitions that get your character going.

Segment 4

How to write a character motivated by greed, avarice, or ambition?

  • Pit your character’s greed against everything else they value — they must sacrifice something (friendship, love) to achieve it (link)
  • Be very clear about whether this motivation is an internal one or an external one
  • Make the choices hard. I despise a novel where the choice is forced by someone who just doesn’t get it, is tired of putting up with the hero’s crap, or is just unwilling to change his or her own life so that the hero can have what he wants.

According to this link, our motivations work if:

  • Make them complex
  • Make your characters have more than one
  • Make them change
  • Make them rational (and irrational)
  • Make them believable
  • Make them susceptible to nature (and nurture)
  • Make them matter (what’s at stake?)

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