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Purpose: The Missing Link Between Characters’ Motives, and Depth

[1]Craft wisdom tells us that the characters we write must be motivated by a fundamental driving need–a powerful desire, ambition or goal. Powerful enough that it could drive them to lie, cheat, commit adultery or even murder.

But what if the concept of desire and drive were a bit too simple as a guidepost in character development? As a reader, I confess I often feel that a character’s drive is such a central focus that everything else about the character rings flat.  After all, there’s a lot more to each human heart and mind than motive. Padding motive with moments of emotion such as joy at a birthday celebration or grief at the loss of a loved one can feel stiff and fabricated.

A few months back, I had just finished reading a novel that left me pondering all this yet again when a nonfiction book for business leaders came across my desk. At first blush the book, Leading From Purpose [2], had absolutely nothing to do with fiction or characters or craft. But cross-pollination can happen in the most surprising places, and as I read I could not help thinking that I’d stumbled across the missing link between characters’ motives and what gives them depth.

The concept is simple yet profound: There is this thing called PURPOSE. We all have it.  But it’s not what you think. It’s not about a desire to dedicate ourselves to an external cause like saving the planet as people often think. Rather, as the book explains, purpose is the unique gift we each bring to the world and always have. Our purpose has been leading us through our whole lives, in every aspect of our lives, and never changes. It is the solid, internal ground that each of us can stand on while the world is spinning out of control.

Take Claudio, for example—one of the business leaders the book talks about. Growing up, the one thing Claudio loved to do was swim. After his son was diagnosed with challenging special needs, swimming became his place of tranquility. Claudio doesn’t like to just swim; instead, what he loves most is something that he experiences only rarely, the feeling of flying on water when he swims. In that moment, the water disappears, and he can swim lap after lap without stopping. The rest of the time is the daily discipline and commitment of swimming in the water. Without the experience of flying on water, all the effort would not be as meaningful and fulfilling for him.

When his colleagues heard this, they said, “There you are; that truly is what you bring to situations that no one else brings. You make the impossible possible and make it look effortless.” His response was, “Yes, that is how it looks and sometimes feels, but it is the daily practice done over years that makes it possible.”

The sentiment beneath this is core to who Claudio is. It is, perhaps, what underlies all his motives and desires.

If at this point you’re thinking, “interesting,” but wondering how the concept of purpose can help with character development,” consider this:

Claudio uses a metaphor to describe his purpose: To fly on water.

Like a key, this phrase helps him unlock access to the headspace he needs to be in so he can fly on water no matter what situation he is in, whether at home, at work, or elsewhere. The book calls that space the “room of purpose,” and calls the phrase to fly on water Claudio’s purpose statement. To help bring himself into the room of purpose—that place where he is standing on his most solid, internal ground—Claudio can use this phrase, thinking of it or saying it aloud.  

To some of us, this concept is synonymous with being centered. While similar, purpose goes much farther and much deeper.  Discovering one’s purpose is a journey that entails exploring magical moments we have lived in childhood and early adulthood; the most challenging experiences in our life—our crucibles; and a passion that has fueled us over time. Moreover,  a metaphor that unlocks access to purpose is an incredibly practical, powerful tool.

This brief blog post can barely begin to scratch the surface of what discovering your purpose and articulating it in a statement entails. If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to read the book [2]. Doing so has been a tremendous awakening for me personally. I’ve discovered how my own purpose, “Shape harmony through words and ideas,” runs through everything I do, in every aspect of my life—from family and work to passion pursuits like practicing singing and ballet. It pulls everything together for me—past, present and future—and gives me clarity in my actions and decisions.

it seems only natural that knowing your characters’ purpose would help you understand and develop them far beyond a set of motives and quirks.

And that asking “what’s my character’s purpose” is a logical precursor to asking, “What’s his or her motive?”

But before any of us can ask what our character’s purpose is, we have to ask ourselves:

“What’s mine?”


Does the concept of purpose as tool for character—and personal—development resonate? What’s your purpose?

About Sharon Bially [3]

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially [4]) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR [5], a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap [6], she’s a member of the Director's Circle at Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s largest independent writing center, and writes occasionally for the Grub Street Daily.